The Lottery: Symbolism

Shirley Jackson possesses a well known reputation for dark fiction writing. Although her short story The Lottery generated a lot of controversy, it ranks as a great piece of fictional writing. Although possessing a very ordinary and mundane setting, the simplicity of Jackson’s direct writing technique and the way she employs writing enhancement tools significantly contribute to the unique nature of this short story. One such enhancement tool is symbolism which is used very well by the author to portray the society in which the lottery takes place along with its typical norms.

Jackson uses the black box and by association, the lottery event for which it is used once a year, as the main symbolism tool. It is old and near breaking-point {“[The black box] is faded and stained” (Jackson, 281)} with the wood chips long vanished while pebbles have taken its place. The black box symbolizes tradition, but one that is greatly in need of change and rectification – like the lottery system for which it is used. Still, the little village persists in holding its terrible annual lottery year after year with no indication that it will be stopped at any time in future {“There has always been a lottery” declares Old Man Warner (Jackson, 284)}, while none of the people of the village dare to contract the lottery system simply because they are afraid of being censured by society and thereby cast out as societal outcasts {“Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset tradition as was represented by the black box” (Jackson, 281) (Voth).

The lottery itself {which is indelibly associated with the black box without which it cannot be held} symbolizes the hypocrisy, weakness and selfishness in people. The villagers hypocritically fake enthusiasm, pretending to enjoy the lottery whereas in fact they secretly dread and hate it. Anxious remarks like “Don’t be nervous Jack” (Jackson, 284) and Mrs. Delacroix holding her breath in anxiety as her husband moves forward to draw his lottery slip (Jackson, 283), testify to their discomfort and tension. Among all the villagers, Tessie Hutchinson best exemplifies this trait. The villagers’ failure to put an end to the lottery ritual symbolizes the weakness in people. They are well aware of its wrongness, yet they do not possess enough strength to accost their disapproval because of their fear of being tagged as social outcasts by the rest of the village community. Tessie Hutchinson also symbolizes the selfishness of people. During the lottery event, she amicably chats with other village women while feigning pleasure at participating in the annual event. Her selfishness gets unleashed the moment she discovers her family’s nomination to pick out the black dot. First she hurls an accusation {“You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair” (Jackson, 284)}. She next turns on her own family {“There’s Don and Eva! Make them take their chance” (Jackson, 285)}(Voth).

The use of the black box and lottery system as symbolism continues when Tessie Hutchinson receives her lottery slip from the black box and opens it, revealing it to the crowd. The slip “had a black dot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with [a] heavy pencil in [his] coal-company office” {Jackson, 301}. Just before the announcementi of the lottery winner, Jackson subtly adds a subordinate clause in which we notice the blackness {symbolizing evil caused by capitalism in the framework of society} of Mr. Summers’ coal trade being transferred to the black spot on Tessie Hutchison’s lottery slip (Kosenko).

In the third and most important use of the black box and the associated lottery as a symbol, its rules depict the discrimination that society during those days perpetrates against women. The black box is used to keep lottery lists that are prepared in advance in such a way that it is the male heads of families who get preferential drawing rights {“lists are [made] up of heads of families [who choose in the first round] and heads of households [who choose in the second round” (Jackson, 294), while relegating other members of the family – including women – to the last round. Even where proxies are forced to be used, it is “boys” (Jackson, 295) who are chosen in preference to girls and women. In fact, women are not even considered worthy of possessing an independent identity {for example, when Tessie Hutchinson arrives for the lottery event, Bill’s male friends say to him: “Here comes your Missus, Hutchinson” (Jackson, 295)}. Women are clearly discriminated against because the men in their role as breadwinners of the family supply the connection between the wider economy of the village and the smaller economy of the house, while women have absolutely no connection to both economies. For example, in the aftermath of the Hutchison family’s selection to pick out the black dot from the black box, Bill Hutchinson, as family patriarch, selects the first round. Mr. Summer deliberately bypasses the second round because Bill lacks a son – only male offspring can select the second round. When Tessie Hutchinson protests that her daughter and son-in-law should be given the chance in the second round, Mr. Summer rejects her request, saying “Daughters draw with their husbands’ families” (Jackson, 299). The black box and lottery rules thus show the total control of the village’s socio-economic hierarchy by male family members while disenfranchisement gets doled out to women family members. The lottery victim symbolizes a scapegoat onto whom the village people can focus, and through whom they can get rid of, their own desires to rebel. Their rebellious desires get diverted by the lottery and its attached principles away from the correct objects – capitalism and the patriarchs fostered by it – into anger at the lottery victim instead (Kosenko).

In conclusion it must be admitted that Shirley Jackson’s employment of symbolism by mainly focusing on the black box and the lottery system that is operated through it has contributed significantly to the masterful nature of The Lottery. To this day, the story represents the most controversial piece of work ever published by The New Yorker in 1948. While at first it attracted reader responses steeped in stunned confusion, speculation and vile language, a greater degree of tolerance towards it emerged during the years that followed. People began to recognize and accept it as a masterful fictional piece by a gifted and controversial woman who herself lived a simple, ordinary life in a small Vermont town. The proof of acclaim for Shirley Jackson’s story appears in its status as ‘required reading’ in American schools for over two generations (Guran).

References used

Guran, Paula. “Shirley Jackson: Delight in What I Fear.” Web.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” Web.

Kosenko, Peter. “A Reading of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.” Web.

Voth, Lori. “Analysis of The Lottery, a Short Story by Shirley Jackson.” Web.