Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery” (1948) is famous for disturbing readers. One of the reasons that the story incites such a powerful emotional response in the audience is that Jackon’s theme in the story relates to a central experience of being human. This experience is that of being both an individual and a member of collective society. By creating a “normal” world and setting that is also terrifying and horribly evil, Jackson is able to craft an unforgettable modern “fable” that carries a strong and highly significant message. Jackson uses irony throughout the story to convey the message that social conformity taken to an extreme is a most dangerous threat to humanity.
While many readers will readily see that Jackson has combined elements of modern life with primitive ideas and practices, such stoning, fewer readers are probably aware of the way in which irony is employed by Jackson to suggest the deeper conflict between individualism and conformity. For example, Tessie Hutchinson, who becomes the sacrificial victim of the stoning pleads for justice from the townspeople. In other words, she attempts to appeal to their sense of justice and humanity. Instead of responding, the townspeople stone Tessie Hutchinson to death because they have substituted blind obedience to ritual and law for a sense of justice and empathy. this is ironic in that, the townspeople are trying to follow law and custom to preserve their culture and ideals, but they are actually preventing true law and meaningful culture from happening.
The way that this sense of irony connects to the main theme of the story is that it shows how blind obedience to the crowd is often a path to injustice and tragedy. Therefore, it is important for individualism to exist as a counterbalance for social influences. Another way that Jackson uses irony to extend her theme of individuality is by connecting a superstitious ritual to a seemingly modern society. This is done by Jackson to make sure that the reader knows there is no rational reason for the lottery or the stoning of the town’s victims. They are simply following a custom for its own end and they are doing so while being obviously ignorant even of the origin or purpose of their murderous ritual. There is also a subtle implication of irony in the way that Jackson describes the weather and season: ‘flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green” (Jackson). Careful readers will note that the combination of murder and the beautiful day is meant to show that the people of the town are oblivious to nature.
Being oblivious or out of step with nature is a theme that aligns very closely to Jackson’s theme of social conformity. The usual vision of social conformity holds that it is an instinctual, evolutionary behavior for human-beings to group together in societies and follow a “herd” impulse. This vision is generally supported by comparing human nature to animal nature. Jackson turns this around ironically and implies that nature actually excels through individuality and birth, rather than conformity and death. The description of the season and weather is a form of symbolism to express this irony with the spring weather indicating birth and the sunny day symbolizing optimism and affirmation. The symbolic connection is offered almost obviously by Jackson in order to show, by contrast, how shallow and blind the people of the village have actually become.
Not a single person in the village is able to object to the ritual murder of the young girl. This is due not to actual powerlessness on the behalf of the people; it is due plainly to their ignorance and blind obedience to conformity. The people portrayed in the story are so afraid of being killed for “standing out” of the crowd that they each suppress their individuality. When each person suppresses their individual feelings all chance of political objection or rebellion dies. When this happens broken social systems, even ones which are cruel and dehumanizing, are able to continue despite the fact that their continuation provides nothing of merit to society.
In fact, this latter quality: the inability to question tradition of the status-quo is the most ironic construction in the story. By showing that the people in the village have simultaneously forgotten how or why the lottery started in the first place yet defend its ritual as the most significant thing in society, Jackson reaches her highest level of irony in the story. This shows that law is only important to conformists in itself; it does not need to serve any justice or social purpose. Of course, since the whole point of human society is ostensibly to rise out of the meaningless “primitive” state of nature, such blind conformity indicates that society has utterly failed. of course, this irony is even more brutal and more profoundly pronounced in that it results in the collective murder of an innocent child.
It is of utmost importance that readers understand Jackson’s story as being more than a story about primitive superstition. The fact, the story is a warning about the extreme dangers that accompany social conformity. While those who relish the idea of social order and law may fail to see the brilliance of Jackson’s argument, those who have suffered under the pressure of others to conform, blindly, to a belief, agenda, or organization will intuitively understand why it was necessary for Jackson to end her story with the brutal murder of an innocent girl. It was necessary because the danger of blind conformity is that it destroys everything important and meaningful about being human, and sacrifices it to a senseless obedience to tradition and law.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. Classic Shorts.Com; accessed, 9-19-13. http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lotry.html