Ritualistic Human Behavior in Jackson’s “The Lottery”, Essay Example

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Essay

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” uses the short story form to portray a certain primitivism that exists with human nature. In essence, Jackson uses the story to de-stabilize any mythologies of human progress and some type of teleological development of the species. Against the backdrop of an ever-increasing modernized world, the primitive ritual that Jackson demonstrates in “The Lottery” shows that such human ritualistic behavior does in fact exist and remains effective on how human beings act and live: the belief in superstitious rituals, as evinced in the story, shows that for Jackson such forms of primitivism are as much a part of human nature, and even more so, than the false narratives of progress.

In the story, a contemporary American town is set to prepare for the annual harvest. The inhabitants of the town, however, are bound to a ritual behavior which employs the superstitious means of the lottery to ensure a successful harvest. Jackson does not reveal what the lottery itself consists in, slowly developing this notion throughout the story. Yet she foreshadows its essence by carefully noting groups of village children gathering stones. The gathered families of the community proceed to draw slips of paper from a box. The Hutchinson family draws the slip marked with a black dot, yet another example of foreshadowing the ultimate negativity of the lottery ritual, insofar as the symbolism of black evokes notions of death. The second round of the lottery then begins with the same process of selection occurring only amongst members of the Hutchinson clan. The wife and mother of the family Tessie draws the marked slip, and is thereafter stoned to death by the same rocks collected by the children at the story’s outset. The ritual to ensure a good harvest is thus completed.

Jackson develops the motif of a primitivism constitutive of human nature through the utilization of a fictionalized account that provides a twist ending. Namely, the author places the reader in suspense in regards to what the essence of the lottery is ultimately about. The lottery is linked to the harvest, which demonstrates a primitive causal relationship: human beings link disparate phenomenon together and find connections between them, even though such connections, as proved by modern discourses such as the physical sciences, are entirely unfounded. The author thus identifies that this type of unjustified causal linking remains a fundamental element of the human: with the lottery, humans concoct rituals to explain phenomena they do not understand.

Jackson thus tries to convey that such rituals are not in themselves relics of an ancient past. By setting the story in the contemporary era, Jackson points out the continued pertinence of this type of behavior, which could be considered in juxtaposition to the contemporary, to be primitive. However, Jackson offers a more complicated picture of human behavior. It is not that the modern follows from the primitive, but rather the case that what is considered to be modern and primitive exist side-by-side. As opposed to some linear narrative about human development, Jackson’s setting of the lottery in the contemporary period shows the fundamental interactions between some form of human progress and the ancient, primitive rituals that together portray what it means to be a human being.

In this sense, the reader grasps through Jackson’s compelling narrative the notion that science and ritual, or the modern and the primitive are not entirely contrary concepts. Rather, both of them seek to explain a reason; they both seek to develop an understanding. The lottery in Jackson’s story is performed so as to ensure a good harvest: ritualistic behavior thus, despite its appearance and its various forms, possesses the same fundamental core as so-called modern discourses of science, since there is present in both cases an attempt to control a phenomenon and to eliminate contingency. This is Jackson’s symbolic portrayal of what it means for humans to know, and thus the central role she confers to such desire for knowledge in human existence.

Jackson thus develops an account of human nature through the usage of a shocking and brutal ritual that confronts the reader with the barbarity of the human. But the particular form of barbarity symbolized in the lottery is merely another form of the essential desire for human beings to know and dominate the world around them. Accordingly, Jackson shows how any separations between the primitive and the modern are merely illusions, since the shock of the narrative lies precisely in this primitivism: the sub-textual shock of the narrative is that this primitivism is merely another expression of what it means to be human.

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