August 9, 2012
The Plot Thickens- In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. A good harvest has always been vital to civilizations. After the fields have been prepared and the seeds sown, the farmer can only wait and hope that the proper balance of rain and sun will ensure a good harvest. From this hope springs ritual. Many ancient cultures believed that growing crops represented the life cycle, beginning with what one associates with the end--death. Seeds buried, apparently without hope of germination, represent death. But with the life forces of water and the sun, the seed grows, representing rebirth. Consequently, ancient peoples began sacrificial rituals to emulate this resurrection cycle. What began as a vegetation ritual developed into a cathartic cleansing of an entire tribe or village. By transferring one's sins to persons or animals and then sacrificing them, people believed that their sins would be eliminated, a process that has been termed the "scapegoat" archetype. In her short story "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson uses this archetype to build on man's inherent need for such ritual. To visit upon the scapegoat the cruelties, that most of us seem to have dammed up within us and explores "the general psychological basis for such cruelty, showing how we tend to ignore misfortunes unless we ourselves are their victims. The Lottery’s [sic.] then, deals indeed with live issues and with issues relevant to our time. Jackson's realism makes the final terror and shock more effective and also reinforces our sense of the awful doubleness of the human spirit—a doubleness that expresses itself in the blended good neighborliness and cruelty of the community's action. (Evans, 112) Jackson weaves seasonal and life-death cycle archetypes, which coincide with vegetation rituals, into the story. The lottery takes place every year when the nature cycle peaks in midsummer, a time usually associated with cheerfulness. The villagers of a small town gather together in the square on June 27, a beautiful day, for the town lottery. In other towns, the lottery takes longer, but there are only 300 people in this village, so the lottery takes only two hours. Village children, who have just finished school for the summer, run around collecting stones. They put the stones in their pockets and make a pile in the square. Men gather next, followed by the women. Parents call their children over, and families stand together. Mr. Summers, a jovial man, who conducts the lottery ceremony, sets the tone of the event with both his name and his mannerisms. But lurking behind him, Mr. Graves quietly assists, his name hinting at a dark undertone. The picnic type atmosphere betrays the serious consequence of the lottery, for like the seed, a sacrificial person must also be buried to bring forth life. Jackson creates balance by assembling Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves to share in the responsibilities of the ritual: Life brings death, and death recycles life. At one point in the village's history, the lottery represented a grave experience, and all who participated understood the profound meaning of the tradition. But as time passed, the villagers began to take the ritual lightly. They endure it almost as automatons--"actors" anxious to return to their mundane, workaday lives. Old Man Warner, the only one who seems to recall the seriousness of the occasion, complains that Mr. Summers jokes with everybody. But, even if one does not understand the meaning, the experience provides the individual a place and a meaning in the life of the generations. Because there has "always been a lottery" (Jackson 216), the villagers feel compelled to continue this horrifying tradition. They do focus, however, on its gruesome rather than its symbolic nature for they still remembered to use stones even after they have forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box (Jackson 218). The reader may conclude that humanity's inclination toward...