Symbols in the Lottery by Shirley Jackson
Pieces of literature are perfected by the literary and literal messages they invoke, and Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ achieves this through a fascinating mix of symbolism and imagery. The myriad symbols and images are incorporated into the short story to a compelling effect that ensures the reader is glued to the story. In addition, the story offers a superficial meaning and a meaning underneath whose understanding can only be uncovered depending on the manner in which one perceives and interprets the symbols and images used. Symbolism runs all through the short story, beginning from the heading – The Lottery – through to the conclusive act of stoning.
Whatever message Jackson wanted to carry for the readership cum audience is deeply concealed within the confines of the society and observes the family orientation as an equally important aspect in the society. The manner in which the short story is constructed espouses a call that denounces traditional rituals and probably explores the consciousness of the society still rooted and detained by the rituals. In addition, the short story explores the dilemma as the characters contemplate on doing away with the ritual as other villages have done. Though this is the superficial message, an exploration into the symbolism and imagery will provide the proper avenue for the understanding of the short story and more so the message Shirley Jackson wanted to pass across.
What Does the Lottery Symbolize?
To begin with, the heading provides the first point of discussion. A lottery is defined by the Oxford advanced learners dictionary defines as an undertaking whose eventual outcome is dependent on fate. This definition goes in line with the story but deviates from the commonly shared notion of a lottery as a form of gambling in which winners are selected from drawn lots and from amongst those who had paid to participate (Duxbury, pg 35). This symbolically contradicts the reader’s expectation that the participation of the lottery is voluntary and on reading one realizes it is involuntarily and in fact mandatory.
The manner and timing in which it is conducted thus deviates from the understanding of an ideal lottery and is perhaps a message for the readership to brace for a meaning deeper than the setting of an ideal lottery. Consequently, the authors, Shirley Jackson, tells the story in the confines of a lottery, illustrating its practices and how it is carried out and eventually the final reward, which is an amazing turn of events. Suspicion is drawn first through the skipping of major practices which characterized the original practice and the fact that the lottery sends shivers amongst the villagers is reason enough for the questioning of its authenticity.
The ‘Lottery’ Symbolism
Another instance of symbolism and imagery is the manner the village prepares for ‘the lottery’. The preparations seem to lack the enthusiasm and excitement expected of a lottery save for the collection of the stones by the boys and girls. The black box is not even considered important in the timeframe that does not include the imminent orchestration of the ritual (Mosby, pg 34-39). Such preparations point to a ritual that fewer people are even concerned about. It could also an indicator of dread and uncertainty over the whole issue that pertains to the lottery.
However, the joy in the collection of the stones and the manner in which they are guarded adds another angle, which probably induces an aspect of nobility into the whole lottery undertaking. The eventual use of the stones is thus projected as vital and important and the rush to have the stones points as the eagerness of the persons involved to participate in the stoning act. In addition, the mood set forth before the actual ritual is one of total disinterest with the villagers taking their time.
However, the readership must wonder at the essence outlined in having all the villagers in tow even those who are sick. How important is such a lottery given that in lotteries participation is voluntary and in most cases, one has to pay to be a competitor for the ultimate prize! (Nyren, pg 21-23) Reading from such preparations, the strategy of the author would most probably have been an early warning for the readership to brace for a different kind of a lottery.
Points of Contention
The setting of the short story remains anonymous all through. This points at a deliberate effort by the author not to restrict the short story to a certain geographical area or known location set up. In addition, this points at universality- that is- the concepts explored by the short story run across the whole society all over the globe. In so doing, the author invokes the understanding and perception of a neutral orientation and probably elicits condemnation of a practice carried world over irrespective of the societal orientation and social parameters.
Thus, the symbolic message is meant to invoke similar associations in every day lives of the readership and make the readership associated with the villagers and the eventual villain, Mrs. Hutchinson (Gelfant & Graver, 2000). The fact that Jackson goes into deep extents and extrapolates the societal segmentation into family units and then into parents and children can be perceived at an attempt to ensure that the short story remains in touch with the day to day lifestyles of the villagers and thus attaching neutrality to it.
However, critics like Burton sense symbolic meaning into the division of the villagers into households. Burton asserts that the division later highlights the patriarchal patronage of the village and is probably a big pointer to opportunities and events all over in the world. Consequently, the subdivision relates to masculine patronage in all aspects of the society and asserts the authority of men over the proceedings of most of the events happening the world over (Hague, pg 13).
In addition, the fact that the man is supposed to go and take the choice surely outlines the insistence of patriarchy. Burton goes ahead to point out that probably the author explored the inevitability of capitalism in society and through the use of the divisions espoused the inevitability of social stratification.
In addition, Jackson extrapolated stratification as a construct of the human mind and successfully questions this perception with the use of Mrs. Watson who represents her husband who broke his leg. However, this attempt is overshadowed by the fact that she has to keep her husband posted and thus has to send the firstborn son to tell them that it is the turn of the Hutchinson family and specifically Mrs. Hutchison.
Such a short-lived appearance of the feminine gender in the limelight is followed by the feelings of the crowd when it has to be one of Hutchison’s. The crowd breathes a sigh of relief when they realize it is not Nancy the girl though the sympathy shown in the hope that Nancy won’t get the dreaded paper. Even then, the patronage elicits capitalist maxims in the face of how the activities are carried out within the society.
Another point of contention is that the affluent persons are the custodians of this abhorred ritual. Mr. Summers who represents the capitalist business world and epitomizes prosperity and the postmaster are the central figures behind the ritual. In addition, Mr. Summers relies on the help of Mr. Graves and they succeed in replacing the wooden chips with paper! One face shows the transition of society from traditional setups to the appreciation of modern changes.
On the other hand, from a business perspective, it insinuates the emergence of money as a medium of exchange replacing barter trade. This is a general view that seeks to assert the emergence of capitalism and thus the societal gaps asserted by the divide established due to the lack of cohesion as established by the joyous stoning the villagers engage in.
The Black Box as the Epitome of Symbolism
Jackson presents it as paraphernalia that nobody wants to associate with. The fact that it is colored black and the seeming lack of enthusiasm from the villagers to associate with it is a warning to the readership that it is an avenue to ill-feted occasions dreaded by all. Thus, it acts not just as a connector to tradition but also as a to the strong beliefs in the black box. The use of this relic also alludes to the use of violence and unmerciful traditions in the religion (Duxbury, pg 35). The fear of the box, whose color is said to be jaded, is manifest in the manner in which people evade the subject of its replacing whenever the issue crops up. Jackson notes “No one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box”.
This is a strong linkage to the tradition and the box, even some go as far as noting that some parts were made of shards of previous boxes. Though the box has been obscured with passing time, no one seems keen to dispose off the box and subsequently the ‘lottery’ tradition. The box is a symbol of a long-held ritual regurgitated- of course with changes- through generations. The fact that the generations have been able to keep the box illustrates the keenness of the village to be part of the ritual.
Supposing the village represented the society as a whole, the box would symbolize a long-held belief and most probably this would be religion as each religion has its practices which stick to fixed procedures and processes and ones that people who observe them dare not change or even alter them in the least.
In continuing with the religious argument, the three-legged stool would be a symbol of the trinity commonly referred to in the Christian world. In the understanding that all other religions are not exempted from the universal picture Jackson intended to create, it is not only Christianity that is intended but also the major religions and traditional myths. Though majorly the Christian Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit) comes to the fore, it is not clear whether it is what Jackson intended (Gelfant & Graver, pg 18).
The three-legged stool can thus be interpreted as the brainwashing of the society such that it can mete collective violence against one of their own. The stool supports the black box and thus can be inferred as the powers that carry the society to violence and evil. The three-legged stool is also synonymous with ancient Greek myths and the three North fates which are all religious-oriented gesticulations. The symbolic message for the use of the stool has thus drawn critics to the religious orientation of the society.
The origin of the tradition seems a mystery to all even to Old Man Warner. The perception by many critics is that this was a deliberate effort on the part of Jackson to question the nature of humanity in adhering to practices which even run out of their cognizance (Hague, pg 13). The villagers seem to revel in the dreaded ritual and express their intent on holding onto one of the oldest religious practices in the world. Thus, the readership curiosity ought to be drawn into the manner in which the villagers revel in the tradition without knowing its origins. The fact that they hold on to the practice point to the fact that it could have a religious bearing in it.
This is symbolic of human nature to cling to the varied avenues in search of redemption and prosperity. In addition, probably Jackson questions the embrace of the world’s most-followed religions on the basis of the manner in which they originated and drew so many followers to them. the question on why Religion has been able to draw such a huge following all over the world as well as other major religions and the fact that they allow space for ungodly practices like judging by stoning to death and have protracted the rise of capitalism which lifts some people at the expense of the others. It is on this knowledge that Jackson wanted the society to gauge itself, especially on the conception that literature acts as a societal mirror.
In the advent of such an adventurous move, questions are raised on the importance of Old Man Warner. His vast days of existence in the world do not inform of the origin of the ritual yet he serves a warning to those intending to do away with the practice. When some people project on the necessity of the ritual, he reckons that the villages that have abandoned the ‘lottery’ practice will come to no good. In addition, he is very vocal in encouraging the stoning act.
He says ‘come all, take a stone!’. Jackson intended this to capture the generational transmission of the ritual and the fact that the children are as eager as the old to pursue the tradition asserts that the tradition is less likely to cede anytime soon. In addition, it points to the enthusiasm with which the village and the society at large take the ritual. Importantly though, he drops the strongest hint that it must have been linked to a ritual, one that involved human sacrifice for the purposes of a good harvest.
The narrator observes that the villagers still remember to gather and use the stones. Such a yearly occasion is surely dependent on the eventual use of stones. The allusion of the use of stones draws from a form of judgment enshrined in all religious practices. Firs and foremost, Christians in the old and New Testament used stones as a way of condemning the social outcasts or those caught engaging in acts considered wayward by society.
On the other hand, the Muslim religion still endorses punishment by way of stoning the persons caught in sins, mostly adultery and fornication. Whether Jackson was challenging this ideal is a point of contention highlighted by the fact that mostly the feminine gender was the ones who were subjected to these acts religiously whilst the male folk were never afflicted.
The fact that Old Man Warner has successively participated in the lottery and the choice of a woman points to critic’s assertion that Jackson was challenging the act of stoning. Thus, the meaning of the story could not be far from society, but rather the assertion that harmony in the society is disrupted by harsh judgments that co-exist with good within society.
The Symbol of the Village and Its Villagers
This brings us to the choice of culprit. Mr. Hutchinson is equally involved in the lottery just like all other persons but he is not lucky. Apparently it is from his household and the most vocal person, Mrs. Hutchison is the one. The manner in which he seems to treat the husband and all villagers should be a forewarning to the audience that she is the likeliest victim of the lottery. The manner of her entrance into the village square, which raises a stir despite her coming late, is the major point of concern. Even Mr. Summers notices her absence and notices her late entrance.
In addition, the domineering manner in which she treats her husband plus argues out the fact that he was not given a fair chance for the selection further mystifies the character she is (Nyren, pg 21). Eventually, we see all the members of the village stone her with no regrets. Her character and sudden death symbolize the lack of chance for women to question the authority of men. Her sudden death expounded by the fact that she was last as she was washing her dishes could also be a symbol for the unpredictability and suddenness of death. The interpretation, however, is dependent on which angle a reader decides to pursue because even religiously it would bear the same meaning.
Through vivid description, the men are associated with ploughing, oxen and garden work. Children are associated with school whereas the womenfolk are associated with kitchen duties. The manner of the entrance is symbolically described to befit a normal village setting. Though this could seem normal, on further inquisition it invokes the association with the daily lifestyles within the society and thus elicits the premonition that the short story covers the real lives in whatever context and offers connection to the diverse contexts which could be applicable. The author talks of a blooming, cheerful village which does not even look disturbed or excited about the whole lottery issue!
This description sets the mood for the reading only for the tragic turn of events. All through, Jackson relies on symbols to ensure that the readership remains glued to the whole text! Suspense also ensures the readership does not deviate from the book. The symbol of the village and its villagers and the manner in which they co-exist draws the humanity of the relationship together (Duxbury, pg 35). The stoning of Mrs. Hutchinson is also symbolic in that she always seems as the person who has remained aloof, unlike all other persons. The fact that she makes herself the vilified person means that she remains vulnerable and thus she is viewed as the outcast in the whole construction.
Finally, the entire ritual is symbolic. The manner in which it is conducted and gauging by the forgotten practices shows that the villagers are not keen on the traditions of the ritual. Indeed, some people are keen on having the ritual stopped. The ritual and the cruel manner in which it is executed could be read to have been a deliberate attempt to castigate the practices of the society, especially towards the women. Though Old Man Warner points to abundance in harvest, the ritual lacks conviction as a human sacrifice. This plain approach could point to the vanity of human sacrifices or even pose as a rebuke the holding on to worthless cultural or traditional practices.
It also questions the logic behind strict adherence to beliefs of questionable origin. If compared to the community, Jackson probably castigated some real-life elements who dictate the proceedings in the society. This could be translated into the ruling elite who define proceedings. Curiously though, Mr. Hutchison does not contest the decision of the lottery harshly as his wife which could ether imply that he is brainwashed or in other words say ‘good riddance’ to Mrs. Hutchison (Gelfant & Graver, pg 21). In addition the fact that the entire village seems to enjoy stoning Mrs. Hutchison points to general hatred. The representation of the family, however, points to the realms of social interaction that have roots in the household one belongs to.
Summary of the Symbolism and Imagery in the ‘Lottery’
To conclude, the forms of symbolism and imagery bring out an analysis of the society, religion and the economic orientation of the society. Jackson probably wanted to capture all dimensions that define the lifestyles. All religions can be said to have been hit as the act of stoning was and still is a common practice of meeting punishment. In Christianity, it can be traced to the New Testament when a gathering wanted to stone a woman who had been caught committing adultery. In the Islam religion, women caught in the act of fornication are half-buried before being stoned to death.
Such a cruel death can also be likened to the rapid spread of capitalism which caters to the affluent at the expense of the poor. This is asserted by the role Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves play extrapolating the essence of position in the society. In addition, Jackson could have been looking at the patriarchal orientation of the society and warning of the dire consequences to the women who fail to observe and respect what can be termed as the status quo.
This is perfectly done through Mrs. Hutchison who is focused on the onset of the ritual until she is condemned to death. Another dimension would involve the condemnation of savage cum primitive practices that have no value addition to the progress of society. Finally, the manner in which the boys are inducted into violence is probably a preparation for the violent world. Dabundo observes that probably the short story comments the generational breeding of violence and notes that with such transitional overtures, violence is unlikely to end especially if generations are thus inducted into it (Dabundo, pg 102). The appalling institutional recognition of murder has an overall forbearance on the value attached to human life, especially if the ritual is carried out yearly.