There are rituals that we practice year after year, but forget where they came from. Sometimes we continue to practice these rituals even after we have lost the meaning of why they are practiced. In the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, the practice of a yearly ritual changes the lives of all the people who participate. Jackson’s story reveals a horrific ritual in which one person is sacrificed by being stoned to death in order to have a better crop season. Jackson uses symbolic objects to represent the villagers’ closed-minded beliefs and their acceptance of rituals.
The controlling symbol in the story is a black wooden box. The box symbolizes death, and it holds the fate of one person within it. Even though, “the black box grew shabbier each year … no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained” (75). With time, the original meaning of the tradition had faded just as the box had. Even though the meaning had faded, when Mr. Adams hinted at stopping the lottery by saying, “over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery,” Old Man Warner called them a “pack of crazy fools” (77). He also said, “They’re listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them,” and “There’s always been a lottery” (77). Soon afterward Mrs. Adams said, “Some places have already quit lotteries” (77). Old man Warner replied, “Nothing but trouble in that,” and “Pack of young fools” (77). Insinuating that only young people wanted to do away with the lottery. It seems as though Old Man Warner is responsible for keeping the lottery going. Although the use of “slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations” (75). The villagers did not substitute the ritual for a less violent one. Instead they blindly went along with Old Man Warner and accepted the ritual.
Again, color is used symbolically in the usage of a blank or black spotted piece of paper. As “Mr. Graves opened the slip of paper and there was a general sigh through the crowd as he held it up and everyone could see that it was blank” (79) the sight of the blank piece of paper not only meant relief but life. The feeling of anxiety swept the crowd as they saw who possessed the piece of paper that marked death. Tessie had drawn the piece of paper with a “black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil” her husband “forced the slip of paper out of her hand” (79). The mark was felt heavily on her soul for she knew the outcome of having drawn the black spot.
The stones in the story were used symbolically to represent a cold, hard heart. Although the “villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (79). This contrasts what we have read in the bible that only he who had no sins should cast the first stone. Tessie was an innocent bystander to a brutal ritual. While some people such as “Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands” others selected “a few pebbles”(79). Perhaps with the passing of age, one feels that the larger the stone the greater the benefit. However, innocence is seen when the children “made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square” they selected the “smoothest and roundest stones” (74). The children followed the examples of their parents although they did not understand the meaning of the ritual.
Therefore, the symbolic objects that Jackson uses not only reveal the close mindedness of the villagers, but their acceptance to a ritual that has lost its meaning. The black box and the pieces of paper represent the blackness and evilness in the villagers heart. While the stones represent the villager’s coldness and stubbornness to change. When people willing continue to practice a ritual that has lost its significance, they convey a message to their children that it is ok to kill someone instead of speaking out for what is right. In the story, we see that the children are already falling in the footsteps of their parents. Rituals are practiced in every society, they help us understand where we came from and how our ancestors lived, however; there are some rituals that are better left forgotten.Bibliography
Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 1999. 74-79.