“The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is a story filled symbolism. The basic premise of “The Lottery" is almost certainly symbolic, and nearly every element of the story represents an idea the author wants to explore. It is the exploration of these symbols which makes this story so interesting. It is also what makes this story so challenging, because the author doesn’t give all the answers. This lack of simple answers forces the reader to find his or her own answers to the meaning of the story.
The lottery itself is clearly symbolic and, at its most basic, that symbol is of the unquestioned rituals and traditions which drive our society. The author considers those things which make no inherent sense, yet are done because that is how they have always been done. These traditions can be something as simple as cutting down a tree and putting it in your house for Christmas, but they can also be far more important and sinister traditions of racism and sexism.
The Lottery Box
The most symbolic item that appears in “The Lottery" is the lottery box. This box is a symbol for those in the town because it is one of the only connections to the origin of the lottery. It has been used for as long as anyone can remember, but is not the original box. Instead they believe that some of the pieces from the original lottery box may have been used to create the new box, but that is not certain. This makes clear that any real connection to the original meaning of lottery have disappeared. Still, the lost meanings of the tradition have in many ways made that tradition more powerful, because you can't question a tradition once it has moved beyond reason to simply the way things are done.
The method of execution at the end of the story is certainly not an arbitrary choice. Stoning is one of the oldest and most common forms of execution, but it is also one of the most symbolic. It has strong connection to many people due to its prevalence throughout The Bible. Many of the first Christian martyrs were stoned to death and serve as a symbol for the innocent being executed. In addition, the story of Jesus stopping a stoning with the words “He who is without sin cast the first stone" is one everyone knows at least indirectly. This phrase, while never said in this story, is hard to forget after reading it.
One of the reasons that stoning was used in the past as well as the reason that it is important in this story is that there is no single executioner. This means that no single person has passed judgment or has to carry the guilt for taking a life alone. This is the same reason that execution by firing squad has so many people shooting (often many with blanks). This is important for the story of “The Lottery" because it helps to make clear who the enemy in the story is. In order for stoning to be effective it requires a crowd to act together. This reinforces the point that the antagonist of this story it is not a single person but society.
Considering the Author
The symbols of “The Lottery" become a bit clearer when you understand that the author was a woman in 1948 America. This made her someone who had a lot of reason to find the longstanding traditions to be just as vile as those traditions in "The Lottery". Whether this was segregation, the lack of free voting rights or any of the many other traditions which still exist primarily because they have always existed. These are traditions which are often difficult for those who are not hurt by them to see clearly and that stories like “The Lottery" help to illuminate.
In addition, a woman being the one chosen by the lottery is important. This is in some way the author putting herself symbolically into the place of the victim. Just as important, it shows the tradition has subverted the natural instinct that men have to protect women. It also made the victim of the lottery someone who was hurt by tradition in the nonfictional world as well.
"The Lottery" is filled with symbols. This story is in many ways a parable more than a traditional story. A society so mired in its traditions that it has lost the ability to even look at the reasons for those traditions, but instead follows them blindly even when they hurt its citizens. Since this is a danger every society faces, “The Lottery" remains relevant in part because the symbols in the story are never fully explained.
- Image, The Lottery Cover, http://vulpeslibris.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/the_lottery.jpg
- Story: Jackson, Shirley, The Lottery, 1948 http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lotry.html
- Image, Shirley Jackson, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ShirleyJack.jpg