A Stained Tradition: Symbolism in “The Lottery”
Written for my English 102 class on October 15, 2017, I had to pick a short story we had read in class, identify three symbols, and discuss how those symbols relay themes in the work. I chose one of my absolute favorite stories, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. The biggest challenge for me was staying under the 500-word maximum. I could have talked about symbols in this story for pages, but only had about a page and a quarter available to me. I had to cut a lot out of my rough draft to meet requirements. Thankfully, I made a perfect grade on this, regardless. The essay was written in MLA 8 format complete with in-text citations and a Works Cited page.
Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” was published shortly after the end of World War II. Much like the Nazis blindly followed orders to exterminate Jews, Jackson’s characters blindly follow tradition and execute one of their own as a scapegoat. In this way, “The Lottery” was relevant to events in its time and exposed some of society’s greatest flaws. Themes surrounding these flaws are presented with the aid of symbols. The black box, the three-legged stool the box sits upon, and the slips of paper inside of the box represent an unstable tradition, a blind faith in the tradition, and the naming of a scapegoat.
Much like the black box, tradition is the centerpiece of the lottery. The box is described as “splintered badly…, faded, [and] stained” (Jackson 605). These descriptions are analogous to the tradition of the lottery. Like the box, the lottery is essentially falling apart. A character in the story states, “some places have already quit lotteries” (608). The community in which the story takes place may not be far behind because so much of the lottery has changed. The oldest citizen in the community says, “It’s not the way it used to be” (609).
The black box sits upon a three-legged stool and is important because it has three legs. The number three is often tied to faith. In Christianity, God is presented as a trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. By placing the box, which so heavily represents the lottery, onto a three-legged stool, it is implied that the lottery is supported by faith. Old Man Warner quotes a saying: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (Jackson 608). The community probably thinks they are rewarded by God for performing the lottery. Their blind faith in the tradition is what likely keeps the lottery going.
The black box is filled with white slips of paper. All but one of the slips is blank. The marked slip of paper heavily relays the theme of a scapegoat. Marked and tainted, the drawer of this slip would take on the sins and flaws of the community, and would be sacrificed to cleanse the community for another year. The other slips of paper in the box are important because they are white, a color often associated with purity, cleanliness, and perfection (Smith). One can take this to mean that by drawing the white slip of paper and participating in the sacrifice, each member of the community is cleansed.
Although the lottery is performed out of tradition, likely has religious motivations, and seemingly cleanses a community by putting its sins and imperfections on a scapegoat, it is clearly wrong. The themes of “The Lottery” were relevant in its time and continue to be relevant today. Society does not use a black box, a three-legged stool, and a marked slip of paper to name its scapegoats, but the continued practice of scapegoating is just as flawed.
Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” Arguing About Literature, edited by John Schilb and John Gifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. pp. 604-610.
Smith, Kate. “All About the Color WHITE.” Sensational Color, 2016, www.sensationalcolor.com/color-meaning/color-meaning-symbolism-psychology/all-about-the-color-white-4369#.WeQF_mhSyM8/.