” ‘Seventy Seventh year I’ve been in the lottery,’ Old Man Warner said as he went through the crowd, ‘Seventy-seventh time’ ” (375)
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is often seen as a classic American short story. The basic premise is that a small town in America gathers every year to conduct a “lottery” in which paper slips are drawn by the heads of each household, then by each family member in the “winner’s” household. The person who draws the final mark is stoned to death by the village. Not much of a “lottery”. I have read the story many times, and each time I’m left slightly more dumbfounded as to why such barbaric tradition is upheld each year. This year, the reasoning shifted in my mind for continuing the “lottery” to two aspects: the upholding of tradition and the lack of ability to speak out by members of the village, which I will address by juxtaposing Jackson with Tocqueville’s “Democracy In America” and its understanding of the Tyranny Of The Majority.
Upholding tradition has never really appealed to me as a reason for keeping something when better methods exist. In “The Lottery” there is no reason, other than a ludicrous sense of tradition which is characterized by Old Man Warner stating, ” ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’ll be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery.” (375) Tradition is apparently enough to uphold the idea of stoning a fellow citizen. Old Man Warner lampoons the idea of change with the infamous “if we do this, then that” statement. Perhaps for the villagers, the idea that one aspect of their society succumbs to alteration their entire way of life falls apart. Ridiculous. But if there is a better way, a less barbaric way, why doesn’t the tradition change?
I believe a large part of the continuation of the tradition of “The Lottery” is the lack of criticism within the village of the practice. The position for the removal of “The Lottery” is discussed in an external manner. Mrs. Adams states that “Some places have already quit lotteries” (375), yet no criticism of the practice comes from the village itself. Why is that?
One possible reason for the lack of criticism comes from what Alex de Tocqueville’s definition of the Tyranny Of The Majority is. Tocqueville describes Tyranny Of The Majority in a republic as one which goes straight to the soul. Tocqueville states,
“You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you… You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity.”(307)
As this applies to the community in the story, those who would call for the removal of “The Lottery” could be viewed as outsiders and fall to the mercy of the village. This is the problem in a “free” society, the alienation of those who wish to speak their true mind. Discussion is closed off and limited to what is defined as “acceptable”. For the village, the idea of eliminating “The Lottery” is unspeakable, “Nothing but trouble in that (giving up the lottery)” (375). The critic of “The Lottery” would no longer be a part of society, they would be outside of it for question the norms and traditions. So no one speaks. Of course, if someone did speak, perhaps “The Lottery” would end because enough people would voice a criticism and change could take place. Enough people secretly holding a view that hasn’t been expressed in the open. Maybe one can read the mere mention of other villages as a sort of ‘testing the waters’ to open the discussion. If reception is met coldly, the view isn’t continued, but any hint of warmth could further the discussion.
Hopefully, those villagers one day do learn from the other villages. Perhaps when ending “The Lottery” is discussed in the external, the reception will get warmer. Yet every year I read “The Lottery”, the villagers don’t change, the same person gets executed and the tradition continues, for no other reason than that it is tradition and no one is bold enough to challenge the structure. Who knows.
Finally, what do you think? Can you think of any practices that are upheld for the simple sake of tradition? Can you think of any traditions that escape criticism? Finally, in America do you agree with Alex de Tocqueville? That some things are not spoken because if spoken you are scorned from society for merely exercising your free will while questioning the status quo?