Preservation Of Tradition

” ‘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?

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6 Responses to Preservation Of Tradition

  1. kmuth0307 says:

    You bring up a good point when questioning WHY the villagers do not speak up against the yearly stoning. Is it because according to Tocqueville, if you speak up against the majority, “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) Or is it darker? It always occurred to me when reading this story if there is a part of the villagers that enjoy this yearly act of violence. The village is eerily peaceful, with no crime and supreme cooperation. Compared to our society today, it is shockingly different. Could it be that the villagers fulfill their dark interest in violence through an organized outlet as the lottery? Think of the violence and crime in movies and t.v. Yet these forms of media are extremely popular. Why is it interesting to watch a show about a murder?

    In this case, if we follow this logic of the lottery forgoing crime at random, in exchange for this yearly murder, where does that leave government? Should the government, in cases where the majority is partaking in an evil act in exchange for something much worse, allow and support this behavior? Or is government’s purpose to protect against evil, crime, and murder, regardless of what form it comes in.

    At times, government is in power of these choices, specifically in times of war. There is suspicion that the AA Flight 93 was not heroically brought down by the passengers, but by our own government’s fighter jets. Details are online of investigations that discovered that human remains were found miles from the crash site and the plane literally fell to pieces before hitting the ground. A few men with experience in war heard fighter jets near by.

    If these findings that suggest the American government killed its own innocent citizens in order to avoid possible bloodshed tenfold are true, do we, as Americans, feel comfortable with this? Is it right for our own government, whose main concern is to protect its citizens, to be shooting down civilian planes? Maybe it is necessary at times. I just raise the question of whether our government as a utilitarian entity, is morally right, or is there something darker about this priority? To relate back to “The Lottery,” the village is utilitarian in that it systematically murders one person every year, to avoid the possibility of a need for violence in which murder and theft occur at random. By fulfilling the villager’s innate need to kill, it gives up one member in exchange for the safety and security of the rest of the community. Our government allegedly sacrificed 40 odd civilians in exchange for the safety and security of hundreds, if not thousands. What is right and where do we draw the line?

  2. czli2011 says:

    In response to your question, “can you think of any practices that are upheld for the simple sake of tradition?” one possible phenomenon is the popular treatment of celebrities in our culture. Celebrities succumb on a daily basis to the “tyranny of the majority”.

    South Park actually did an episode exploring this idea of “cultural martyrdom”; your post reminded me of it. It was an episode in which main characters Kyle Broflovski and Stan Marsh take pity on Britney Spears after a botched suicide attempt, and try to save her from a group of villagers who decide to sacrifice her for a good corn harvest.

    The core observation of this episode is that the manner in which we treat celebrities is irrational. Celebrities are built up and torn down to make individuals feel better about their lives, much like the villagers in “The Lottery” irrationally sacrificed individuals because of tradition, because nobody will speak up, to “please the gods”, or however one interprets the text.

    In fact, it is interesting to note that South Park directly makes this comparison by placing Britney Spears in the Shirley Jackson short-story “The Lottery.” Several lines from the episode are even directly quoted from the story.

  3. paranpi says:

    “the Lottery” presents a rather stark and extreme case where tradition-or the majority as you compared can mean life and death for one member of the society, but is still continued for the sake of “wholeness” of the community.
    I think following a tradition has a lot to do with whether or not the society and its members see it as beneficial to themselves, or as you’ve mentioned to establish and express themselves as a part of the group. Rousseau, when he was criticizing the high French society, also said society forces us to take on “identities” that was far from our real “natural” selves, in order to be accepted by others and become a society.
    Or maybe it’s not so simple. People created society because they wanted security, a way to depend on each other and survive. I think in some cases, the society or the majority or who ever is in control would see it as a direct challenge to group’s identity and “wholeness”. For instance, for this year’s Thanksgiving, if I decided to not participate, or even ask why would any one bother celebrating Thanksgiving, I feel like I am not only questioning that holiday, but my family’s core values, and to some extent it’s identity.

  4. andycraft says:

    Tocqueville is writing in the time of our fairly new republic where the minority not only feel uncomfortable for criticizing the majority, but do not even possess the desire to speak out against something that is clearly flawed. However, in the 21st century, every issue and topic is discussed and debated almost ad nauseum. Political, Social, Moral, Ethical, and Economical debates take stage on the democratic arena. The Internet has definitely been a catalyst for this. It is much easier to start a social or political movement in this century with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere. This anonymity of expressing our opinions and activating change has influenced revolutions. This country knows no bounds against the majority. The University of Michigan is a prime example of activism, protest, and change.
    Questioning the majority is defined in our civil rights aka free speech, however, I find a distinct parallel in Morone’s Democratic Wish to Tocqueville’s, Democracy in America. Does Big Government (the majority) actually take into consideration the minority or does the minority become trapped in the cyclical stalemate of the democratic myth? When the minority wants to change the status quo, people start mobilizing and the government hears them and acknowledges them. But this merely creates more political institutions to address the specific issue and the movement becomes swallowed up back into the cycle of the democratic wish where the majority is still controlling the decisions.
    Morone and Tocqueville do not believe that the United States is much of a democracy.

  5. arlaurin says:

    First, I LOVE this story. I have read it numerous times for different classes, and it always creates a great discussion. I have an instance in response to times where our society does things just for traditions and it is about hazing (I know many frat guys may hate me for this!). It is a tradition in most fraternities to haze along with even sports teams and clubs I heard about in high school. It is mainly a guy thing, although I will admit I have heard stories of girls doing this too. It is typically horrible things done to people that want to be members of the group to show how tough and loyal they are. But frankly, I just don’t get it. It may be a tradition, but I cannot grasp the concept of getting hurt to be part of something. Does someone want to expand on this? Maybe show me another way to look at it?

  6. brandoneinstein says:

    One particular well known practice that I find to be upheld for the simple sake of tradition is the annual “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain. If you are unaware of this event, it could be the most senile, pointless, immature, and ridiculous tradition ever conducted. Simply put, it is a wild chase of free bulls running after numerous citizens throughout the narrow streets of Pamplona. Apparently, the tradition began in 14th century Spain as a means to herd bulls across town. Even more ridiculous is that a couple hundred people a year are injured by the stampede. And since 1910, roughly 15 people have been killed. Furthermore, there is no incentive for running with the bulls other than for the thrill of the chase.

    Similar to “The Lottery,” this barbaric tradition is practiced because there is simply no reason to get rid of it. Yes, both traditions ruin lives and are conceptually boorish to the reader. However, the ones partaking in the traditions retain a sadistic enthusiasm. In other words, these barbaric acts are a form of entertainment. According to psychology, the brain releases dopamine when we are presented with violence. This chemical is what causes the body to experience the “thrill”. As with the “lottery” or the running of the bulls – gladiatorial games, jousting matches, and even modern day boxing or MMA – all maintain the aforementioned barbaric aspects. However, as human beings, we enjoy these traditions because they engaged our attention. As students, we are far more likely to criticize such acts of savagery because were observe them from an analytical standpoint.

    How would a tradition like this be perceived by de Tocqueville? He asserts: “…but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest, but all controversy” (p. 307). Traditions are maintained as the majority has a stake in them. Sure, traditions could end if more modern solutions prove to be more productive or efficient. But most people are comfortable with traditions simply because we are naturally “creatures of habit”. While there will always be dissent, the voices of the dissenters are generally kept to a hush. Sure PETA and other animal rights groups have tried on multiple occasions to cease the running of the bulls. However, the spectacle still continues to thrive – even in all of its “stupidity”. Maybe we enjoy things for the wrong reasons. Or maybe, just maybe, we are all barbarians ourselves.

    Sources/Cool Finds

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