Human Nature and Tradition in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”


Shirley Jackson’s  “The Lottery” shows humanity’s blind acceptance of tradition. This short story presents the tendency in human nature to hold to the status quo without critical thinking. The townspeople’s failure to understand the purpose behind the lottery, Old Man Warner’s condemnation of non-conformity, and the townspeople’s emotionless killing of Mrs. Hutchinson shows a blind acceptance of tradition.

First, the townspeople show their blind acceptance of tradition in their failure to understand the purpose behind the lottery. Oftentimes, people who blindly follow tradition do so without ever considering the purpose behind the tradition. The townspeople seemingly lack a desire to understand the purpose behind the tradition because, over time, the specific directions of the lottery have either been ignored or forgotten. If the townspeople were truly concerned about the reasoning behind the lottery, surely they would have made an attempt to uphold all of the directives. However, “the original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago,” but the town continued to meaninglessly follow mindless tradition. Although the townspeople did not attempt to retain the specifics of the lottery, they did not want to improve upon the tradition either. When improvements were suggested, such as Mr. Summers suggestion “about making a new box,” no one seemed excited, because “no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” (132). Failure by the townspeople to understand the purpose behind the tradition demonstrates in principle that unevaluated tradition often leads to double standards. The double standard that Jackson demonstrates—neglect of preservation and abhorrence of tradition—clearly reveals that the townspeople failed to consider the purpose behind the lottery. If the townspeople understood and believed the principles that had birthed the tradition of the lottery, then they would not be so willing to forget the specifics while at the same time becoming upset at the suggestion to add to or change tradition. Clearly, lack of understanding the purpose behind any given tradition gives evidence that the follower has blindly accepted that tradition.

Humanity’s blind acceptance of tradition is seen first through the townspeople’s failure to understand the purpose behind tradition, and second in Old Man Warner’s condemnation of non-conformity. Blind traditionalism rejects all that does not conform to itself, therefore, when non-conformity presents itself, it is met with loud condemnation. This condemnation is most clearly seen when Mr. Adams mentions that a nearby village was thinking about getting rid of the lottery. Old Man Warner disapproves of these young non-conformists because “nothing’s good enough for them” (135). He goes on to indicate that he believes rejection of tradition will cause the town to “go back to living in caves” (135). His response is accusatory, defensive, and riddled with logical fallacies. He evidences that traditionalism condemns non-conformity, often without a fair hearing, and that traditions seeks to remove all those who do no conform. His defensive response and quickness to condemn evidences that he takes the suggestion for change not only as an attack on the tradition, but also as an attack on himself. For people embody philosophies, in this case, Old Man Warner embodies blind traditionalism. So, in general, when people reject traditionalism, those traditionalists feel rejected as well. In response, traditionalism and the people who embody that philosophy reject non-conformity, but more so, the people who embody non-conformity.

The battle between tradition and non-conformity quickly changes into a battle of person, ad hominem, rather than a battle of philosophies. This shift in argumentation, brought on by a failure to understand the purpose behind tradition and a rejection of non-conformists points to the third illustration of thoughtless acceptance of tradition. The townspeople show their blind acceptance of tradition by deadening their emotions. Battles between people kill emotion, allowing the debaters to battle with no thought to personal relationships. The final phase of the tradition came after the papers had been drawn and the victim had been selected. The killing of a friend was at hand. The townspeople were completely deadened emotionally and directed volitionally by tradition. Refusing to change tradition to provide for a more comfortable death for the victim was unheard of, for “they still remembered to use stones” (137). Tradition had so deadened the townspeople’s emotions that they were willing to stone a friend, a mother, and a wife—Mrs. Hutchinson. On individual was so blinded by tradition that he or she even gave a few stones to little Davy, Mrs. Hutchinson’s son, so that he too could join in with the killing. Though she screamed out “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (138) in an attempt to bring the townspeople to her senses, her voice fell upon deaf ears. The people had no affections that could cause them to reason. As tradition weaved itself into the townspeople’s hearts, the people lost emotion and feeling.

Jackson intends for the reader to understand that blindly accepting tradition can be dangerous, deadly even. She uses the townspeople to show what blindly following tradition looks like. The townspeople did not understand the purpose for the tradition, Old Man Warner loudly condemned non-conformity, and the townspeople emotionlessly murdered Mrs. Hutchinson – all demonstrating humanity’s tendency to blindly follow tradition.

Collier, John. “The Chaser” 50 Great Short Stories. Ed. Milton Crane. New York. Bantam Books, 1983.

3 thoughts on “Human Nature and Tradition in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

  1. I just finished this short story earlier today, after it was recommended to me by someone else. It’s a haunting story, and a great reminder that we should always strive to understand why we do the things we do, instead of just doing them because they’ve always been done.

  2. Pingback: We are all different and unique. | One Lifetime

  3. “The Lottery” really is an intriguing short story. I appreciate your thoughts about how blind acceptance of tradition leads to a disregard or neglect for the tradition itself in addition to the narrow-minded unwillingness to change any aspect of the tradition. Thanks for the post.

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