Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is one of the most analyzed short stories in the history of American literature. First published in the literary magazine The New Yorker on June 26, 1948, it has been classified as a typical American classic short story and now ranks among the top ten most famous short stories ever published in America (Oppenheimer 212). The Lottery differs from many other short stories in American literature in its gruesome plot and ending, as well as evokes countless questions on failure to question the tradition and blindly follow what has been observed by community’s predecessors (Safra 70). The story seeks to weigh the effects of over-observance of conformity vis-à-vis the brainpower. This paper analyzes the story from a literary perspective by examination of the literary devices and style that Jackson uses, as well as the setting, characterization and themes she develops.
The paper develops a myriad of themes. One theme which the story highlights is the level of deindividuation. This has often been defined as the loss of individualism by an individual in social groups. Therefore, this leads to the loss of one’s moral stance, ideology, political views, and social outlook, which all make up an individual. Deindividuation is also referred to as a “herd mentality” and can be defined as a people’s tendency to act and behave in unison with the group or mob they are a part of. The author clearly shows that consensus can be considered as morally reprehensible. It is seen in the society which is the victim of itself. In The Lottery, the collective mentality leads to the brutal stoning of one of the community members, yet none of those stoning shows the slightest signs of remorse or guilt for a murder.
In order to lose individuality, people within a group must show high level of group cohesiveness in which they take pride in being part of the group and complete tasks embarked upon by the same group. This cohesiveness often tends to push the individual to act in ways that the group would appreciate even in if such actions are against their principles and moral standings (Eisenberg, 193). Diffusion of responsibility is another phenomenon that is almost always present at acts of deindividuation. The individual within a group usually assumes that it is the others within the group that are responsible for making the decisions on behalf of the group while their role is to follow the decisions (Wheelan 27). The individual thus allows either through an action or inaction the occurrence of events which they would not allow to occur if they were acting alone (Forsythe 18).
Such phenomenon is also common in hierarchical organizations, where subordinates may commit acts they would not normally do in the guise of following the orders of their superiors.
The Lottery portrays a society in which villagers feel that there is nothing wrong in stoning one of their own since everybody is doing. When Tessie Hutchinson is chosen as a human sacrifice, all the villagers, including Mrs. Delacroix, who is her personal friend, take part in the stoning as they feel it is alright to do so, since everybody else is doing it.
The situation In Shirley’s setting is ideal for deindividuation. In her description of the town, she does not mention any central governing or order-keeping authority. Therefore, the process of decision making is decentralized as one can see the case of group intelligence. The group decisions are often sporadic and lack aforethought consideration. Lack of legal bodies or authority or enough empowerment often leads to situations where a group has to use their collective judgment to settle the issues. The detrimental judgments that are usually made are attributable to the absence of an answerable authority that will be accountable for wrong decisions. Furthermore, individuals in the group know that they can hide within the group for wrongs they commit being under the banner of the group.
The deindividuation of the village members is portrayed by the eagerness in which the village waits for the lottery. They do not seem repulsed even when realizing the fact that they are about to commit a murder. On the contrary, they look forward to the coming of event as though it is a celebration, though are uneasy about the fact that they may be chosen for the sacrifice. Young children begin to gather stones early in the morning. Adults assemble early for the lottery so as to finish the process before lunch. It does not appear to be an unpleasant duty that the villages have to fulfill due to the tradition obligation. It is an occurrence which they apparently enjoy. One of the villagers, Tessie, complains about the unfairness of the lottery when her family is picked to provide a person who is to be used for the human sacrifice. Under their collective mentality, the villagers have lost their cognition of evil and treat a process that leads to the murder as though it is a sport.
The role of the family and its ability to fulfill its duties comes under scrutiny when the family seems to succumb to mob mentality in The Lottery. The Hutchinson family is central to the development of the mob mentality theme in the story. The family members fail to provide one of the most basic obligations of the family to its members – protection. Bill fails to stand by his wife Tessie when she needs it and takes hand in her death. Tessie’s son “little Davy Hutchinson” receives pebbles from his peers to hasten his own mother’s stoning. The thick irony portrays how the role of the family can be eclipsed by a “herd mentality.” The man and young boy fail to show their love, if any, to their wife and mother respectively due to the influence from members of the mob. The character of Bill Hutchinson in particular seems to point at a society in which the individual is so bound by traditions and their expectations, which dictate that people have to stick to them even when it is totally wrong. He scolds Tessie when she protests against the unfairness of the selection process. This shows that his allegiance corresponds to the mob but not to his family. He further wrenches the marked slip from her hand and shows it to the crowd. Jackson uses Bill to develop a slave per se of tradition and mob mentality.
Tradition also takes part in the loss of one’s individuality. Some community members do question the lottery, its relevance and use, but ultimately perform the grisly ritual in the end. The author uses the story to tell the society about the danger of the general tendency to hold to a given tradition notwithstanding strong, logical arguments against it. People feel that since it has always been performed, and everybody is for it, then it is right.
In her story, the author explains the causes of deindividuation in the society. There are various factors in the lottery that cause deindividuation. Some of them may result from the loss of family values and following traditions, as well as lack of central authority that has a great influence on the instigating herd mentality. When no one is responsible for keeping law and order in a given society, it is likely that the members of society will apply “herd wisdom” in their decisions and may end up making decisions in a way that will contradict their individuality. People are aware of the fact that they can hide in their group once the deed is complete. A central governing authority, however, considers each of the people in its jurisdiction individually, and considers their interests on individual basis. Moreover, it even punishes misbehaved members of the community individually. A central authority should have intervened in the case of the lottery as it is responsible for protecting Tessie’s interests. However, such an authority is conspicuously absent from the setting of the story.
Low Regard for human Life is both a cause and effect of deindividuation. When the members of the society fail to give appropriate regard to a human life, it follows that they can take lives without experiencing the guilt that comes with killing. In the town in which the lottery is set, the townsfolk have been committing a murder every year through their lottery and hence regard human life inappropriately. One member of the town tells Tessie to be a sport when the town is about to kill one of the members of her family. For the townsfolk, therefore, killing becomes a sort of a pastime or a leisure activity. This is the proof that they do not regard life in very high terms. The children are introduced to the lottery at a young age and grow up in a society that considers taking the lives of fellow human beings as a sport. They, therefore, grow without being repulsed by the idea of taking away a life.
Rituals are proven to be a cause of deindividuation. The lottery is a ritual that the villagers annually go through in order to reap bumper corn harvests from their cornfields. When they go through the ritual, they deindividuate and consider only the effects of the ritual on the group (the alleged bumper harvest), not on the individuals that will lose their life or the family members. Being unchecked, ritual can create fanaticism which is ideal foundation for the deindividuation.
Lack of religious values is also influences deindividuation in the setting of the story. In Jackson’s description of the town and its significant buildings, she fails to mention a place of worship. The results of lack of such an institution in the society is evident. It is likely that if the townsfolk had affiliated to any religion, the religious leaders would have reminded them of their duty to preserve life but not to take it away. Religion is proved to be in charge of authority in cases when it is absent or too weak to discharge their mandate, which is the case in the village where the story is set. Lack of religious bodies in this town facilitated deindividuation as the members of the society had no one to remind them of their moral obligations.
The author shows how adverse the effects of deindividuation can be. One of the effects is the loss of lives. Tessie Hutchison losses her life due to the deindividuation of the members of her town. In their collective mentality, the townsfolk annually take someone’s. In his deindividuated state, Old Man Warner has taken part in taking away seventy seven lives. In nearly all cases when mobs take lives of fellow human beings, the individuals deindividuation normally takes place before such a killing.
Another effect of deindividuation is a family break-up. Tessie’s murder by a deindividuated person in a mob causes Little Davy Hutchison to lose his mother and Bill Hutchison to lose his wife. From the story, the lottery has been taking place every year and, therefore, a family in the village always loses their loved ones every year. The deindividuated mob does not however pause to think about the effects of their actions.
Deindividuation also causes a break in interpersonal relationships. Due to deindividuation, Mrs. Delacroix, loses all the value she has for her friendship with Tessie and takes an active role in her stoning. Bill, on the other hand, breaks the ties that bind Tessie and him together as husband and wife.
Constant deindividuation is also seen to cause the death of consciences. The villagers undergo this phase of losing their self-awareness at least once a year. As a result, their conscience that ought to make reasonable judgments deriving from the values while feeling remorse, when they go against them, has apparently died. Instead, they derive their judgments from the norms rather than human values. Deindividuation, therefore, leads to the death or “corruption” of the conscience and morality that is an inherent feature of every human being and that brings benefits for both the society and the individual. It is the conscience that reminds the individuals of their moral obligations and reprimands them when they go against the values.
Different fictional authors have often developed characters who lose their identity when being in a crowd. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by American author Harper Lee, the protagonist, who is a young girl called Scout, encounters a mob that is about to lynch a man who is innocent. The individuals in the mob have obviously undergone deindividuation. Recognizing one of the people in the mob, Scout calls him by name. This reminds him of his individual identity and, consequently, breaks his sense of deindividuation. The other members of the mob also suddenly become self-aware and thus do not complete their intended lynching.
Loss of individual self-awareness and acting in accordance with group’s decisions is one of the factors that have led to the commission of some of the most heinous acts throughout the history of mankind. The “herd mentality” is an attribute of many animals and when human beings’ actions are guided by the decisions of a group rather than their personal intellect, it is a portrayal of societal detriment (Bloom 17). Shirley Jackson in her short story The Lottery shows a case of deindividuation and explores its causes and results. She depicts the attribute to be caused by the lack of central authority, tradition, weakening of family and interpersonal relations, permissiveness of the society and failure to accord with human life and dignity (Hyman 111). The author points out that a society, whose members lose their individualism, losses its collective conscience and members of such a community may commit extreme acts and fail to feel any remorse. The story fulfills the literary role of highlighting the evils in the society when educating the masses on the importance of thinking as individuals and the dangers of losing their individual identities. It is a story which everybody ought to learn from and desist from acting in the same way. Furthermore, the story makes its readers examine their lives and see if they have unknowingly and unconsciously became slaves of the groups they are members of. Moreover, it emphasizes the importance of reevaluation of the advantages of being members of such groups vis-à-vis being out of them. When doing it, individuals can decide whether being members of such groups is worth it.
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