Conforming to Custom in Shirley Jacksons The Lottery

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The integral commitment to conforming to customs is one of the unsolved mysteries of human nature. Needless to say, it can be a good thing, especially when we mean caring for the elderly and the small children. It is primarily because of the customs we can still enjoy melodic Christmas carols or the delicious recipe of Thanksgiving turkey. Some of the other traditions like getting married, for example, have greatly helped to facilitate legal relations between people who live and have children together. However, the danger of always following customs lies in the fact that sometimes people conform to them just because it has always been so without questioning themselves why they do it. Some traditions simply become outdated as the historical context change and there is no longer need for them. For instance, the tradition of concubinage lost its significance and disappeared as women obtained more rights and got the opportunity to provide for themselves. Nevertheless, a lot of obsolete traditions have made their way into the modern world and their presence in it is not always harmless. Thus, this essay will explore the effect this phenomenon has on peoples mind on the example of Shirley Jacksons short story The Lottery.

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As the title suggests the plot of the story is about one of many people winning something. Only the the prize is being the victim of a human sacrifice ritual in order to have better crops. The reader, however, up to the last page can only make guesses about what will happen to the person who gets the only piece of paper with a black spot on it. Shirley Jackson gradually shows how blind conformity to customs makes a wild and mindless beast out of every human being who is part of that ritual. It is evident that nobody in the village truly understands why the annual event, organized so meticulously and thoughtfully, actually takes place. Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town gives the reader a hint about the possible reason for the lottery: 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon ( Jackson 4). No one of the villagers ever questions what is happening as the tradition of lottery seems as established and immutable as the fact that the sun rises every morning. Even the paraphernalia needed to conduct the beastly ritual remain practically the same, though the story tells us that the original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago (Jackson 1). In fact the black box does not seem to differ much from the original one; it is still a deadly box for one of the villagers. The only difference that was introduced by Mr.Summers, the principal of the ceremony, was substituting wood splinters with pieces of paper. There were also rumors that the ceremony used to be accompanied with some kind of tuneless chant performed by the official either while standing by the box or walking among people. However, this part of the ritual was allowed to lapse along with the ritual salute greeting each person approaching the official to draw from the box. The author makes an impression that these changes were not introduced by any of the characters but were also passed from the previous generation thus becoming part of the custom themselves.

When it comes to analyzing the characters it strikes the reader most of all that they do not differ much while participating in the ritual like people normally do. The main character is Mr.Summers, the front man of the event. He does not have any children so he has free time for socially significant activities like getting everything ready for the lottery. He is even talking about getting a new box because the old one is getting shabbier and shabbier every year. All this talk remains just a talk as no one actually wants to take responsibility for changing even that little of the tradition as getting a new box. Mr.Summers even wears the same clothes to conduct the lottery every year a white shirt and blue jeans. His last name associates with summer when the event takes place and he can play the leading part in the drama of life and death. Another outstanding character is Mrs.Hutchinson whose husband drew the wrong piece of paper. She first attracts attention to herself by being late and saying that she almost forgot what day it was. The event became such a common staple in the lives of the villagers that even Mrs.Hutchinsons children had left before her to be in time to collect stones. Another unusual behavior of hers is demanding to start the procedure over when her husband Bill took out the terrible slip of paper. Tessie Hutchinson insisted that it was unfair as Bill did not have enough time to choose. However, this deviation from the tradition can be explained by pure fear of cruel death. Other villagers look and sound pretty much the same: all they want is to get this over with as soon as possible to be home for the noon meal. No one tried to stand up for Tessie even her husband. The minute she showed them the piece of paper with the black spot on it she stopped being one of them. Even the fact that she had three children (one of them being too small to draw himself, so another villager helped him) did not soften anybody. No one stopped to think why they had to do what the tradition prescribed them to, they simply knew they had to stone Tessie to death. The Graves, the Delacroix, the Martins and Old Man Warner and other villagers, all seeming kind and good-natured people, turned to programmed robots when it came to performing the ancient ritual. The horror and terrifying absurdity of the story is enhanced by the fact that it set in relatively modern world.

Therefore, conforming to customs like a programmed machine by definition cannot be a good thing. It is in human nature, however, to prefer pre-prepared moves and decisions. It is much easier to do as our parents and grandparents did and live in a kind of approved collective virtual reality than to take the responsibility for ones actions.

Works Cited

Jackson Sh. The lottery. 1948. Web. Sept.2010.

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