Pointless Violence Under a Veil of Tradition in “the Lottery”: a Discovery Via the Tools of Irony and Symbolism Within the Framework of Formalism

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Pointless Violence Under a Veil of Tradition in “The Lottery”: A Discovery Via the Tools of Irony and Symbolism Within the Framework of Formalism

The approach to literary criticism known as Formalism focuses on the literary text itself as the source for meaning, and deems the text as the only context a critic should turn to for research. It is a style of criticism that places emphasis on the literary tools and techniques in a text, apart from a text’s or authors historical context. The key to Formalism is structural and textual analysis. With the formalist assumptions that format and context are connected, and literature is ultimately symbolic, it is possible to extract meaning in the short story, “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson using the tools and language of the text. “The Lottery” employs complex symbolism within its framework of irony to reflect its theme of needless violence disguised by the notion of tradition and maintained by blind superstition and this meaning can be discovered using the theoretical approaches of formalism.

To renowned formalist critic, Cleanth Brooks, one of main areas of concern for criticism is unity. Each part of the text is necessary for the functioning of the whole, and cannot be taken away without destroying the organic whole. Additionally, the meaning of a text does not lie in the abstract but in the concrete details and objects within the text. This principle of the organic relationship between the solid pieces of the writing firmly defends the notion that the literary text as context is necessary: “In coming to see that the parts of a poem are related to each other organically, and related to the total theme indirectly, we have come to see the importance of context” (85)

Irony in “Irony as a Principle of Structure” is the contrast between the superficial meaning and the deeper meaning and it is widely determined by the context within a text. That is, it requires a textual context or the literary text’s frame of reference to be understood and recognized. So a text that employs irony as one of it’s principal objects cannot be deciphered for meaning without looking primarily at the text itself. The theme of a literary work is absorbed in its details. Such is the case with Jackson’s “The Lottery”. To understand the meaning of the story, it is absolutely necessary to examine the various literary objects such as irony and symbolism.

Irony in “The Lottery” is reflected in the title, setting and the actions of the characters, and the argument presented is further explicated in the symbols the physical objects in the text, and the names of the main characters. “The Lottery” is a story of a day in a small town where the townspeople have gathered for an annual ceremony that is known as “the lottery”. Each head of the family picks a slip of paper from a black box. The Hutchinson family is the one that picks a slip with a black spot on it. All the papers are collected, and then each Hutchinson draws again to narrow the selection. The wife and mother, Tessie Hutchinson, is the one this time with the slip of paper with the black indication. At that time, amid her protests, the villagers throw stones at her. The story in portrayed in such a manner that the true situation is not revealed until the first stone hits Tessie.

The title “The Lottery” combined with the setting painted establishes a type of cosmic irony in the story. The word lottery signifies a celebratory fortunate occasion. The title purposefully plays of the reader’s assumptions in order to create its unexpected ending. The setting of a date that is “clear and sunny, with the warmth of a full-summer day” (291) promises a pleasant occasion with a happy reward for a lucky participant. However, this lottery is far from happy and results in a prize of demise for the winner. The separate gatherings of the children, the men’s talk of planting and the woman’s gossip that changes into a terse grouping of...
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