The Use of Symbolism in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" Within the first few lines of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" we are faced with such adjectives as clear, sunny, fresh and warmth. She goes on to paint a picture of small children just out of school for the summer, as the townspeople gather for the annual Lottery. This leads us to believe that the rest of the story is as cheery as the summer day initially described. We as the readers are virtually unaware of the horrible senseless events that lie ahead. Through the use of symbolism Shirley Jackson reveals the underlying decay of ethics that results from an empty ritual followed by narrow-minded people.
Tessie Huchinson symbolizes the typical townsperson who lacks morals and conforms to the masses. Upon introduction she exudes a carefree attitude when she arrives late at the lottery, by joking with Mr. Summers and urging her husband to, "Get up there…" when their name is called to pick (Jackson 77). Consequently, the moment she finds out that her husband has the black dot Tessie yells, "It wasn't fair!" (Jackson 78). Naturally, the rest of the self-centered people urge her to "[b]e a good sport"(Jackson 78). The most disturbing event in the entire story is when Tessie tries to get her older daughters to be part of the final picking, and is dissapointed when she is told that they are only drawn with their husbands. The lottery proceeds and Tessie is stoned to death by her fellow neighbors. Shirley Jackson wants us to float along with her upbeat story and be completely appalled in the end at the total loss of human decency. Although Tessie was not said to be religious, her name might have been tied to a religious liberal named Anne Huchinson. "Anne was banished from Massuchusetts for 'Trauding the ministers' in 1637" (6:
175). Perhaps Jackson was paralleling both Tessie being stoned and Anne being banished for senseless reasons.
Symbolically the battered black box represents the death that it brings to the community as well as a worn out tradition. The box is mentioned repeatedly throughout the story, which is a sign of its importance, although we are kept in the dark about its ultimate function until the very end. It is described as "…no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places [is] faded or stained." (Jackson 75). This seems to also describe the lottery itself- old, faded, and stained with the blood of all those who have died in years past. Ironically, the black box used in the story was said not to be the original box and the papers that they used were substitutes for the old wood chips. This is a sign that the tradition is so old and meaningless that it can be constantly added to or taken away from. "Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box…[and] every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything being done" (Jackson 75). Perhaps Mr. Summers's idea symbolizes a need for a new tradition.
The diverse characters within the story represent various views and ideas in a symbolic manner. "The lottery was conducted-as were the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program-by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities"(Jackson 74). The last name 'Summers' can obviously be connected to the season of summer, he also runs a coal business, his wife is always scolding him, and with his round jovial face he seems to represent something cheery and light, like the sun. His character seems to
Illuminate the surface tone of the story while at the same time underscores the ultimate irony. The adjectives used within the story to describe his demeanor were of particular interest, for
example "…one hand resting carelessly on the black box…as he talked interminable to Mr. Graves…"(Jackson 75). He appears to be bored and put out with the whole event. Another good example of his attitude is when he says soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with so's we can go back to work"(Jackson 76). This illustrates Mr. Summers' lack of empathy for his fellow townspeople, whose fate is in his hands. Ironically his assistants name is Mr. Graves, which isn't meaningful until the end. Mr. Summers is what you would call the devil in disguise, a cold heartless killer.
Old Man Warner's character represents the stubborn, closed minded, old traditional way of thinking that applauds this mindless ritual. In reference to the comment made about places up north giving up the lottery he remarks, "Pack of crazy fools…listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them." His justification is, "There's always been a lottery"(Jackson 77). He has been involved in the lottery for 77 years, which has conditioned him to believe that they are doing the right thing.
As discussed in class, the theme to this story can be expressed within a quote, "Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones"(Jackson 79). The tradition and its function had been forgotten yet these people still killed one of their friends every summer. Shirley Jackson symbolically paints us an unsettling portrait of the loss of human decency that results when seemingly civilized people ignorantly conform to the masses.
"Hutchinson, Anne." The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 1986.
Jackson, Shirley. "The Lottery." Literature and the Writing Process. Elizabeth
Mc Mahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Prentice, 1999. 74-79.