Loss of Tradition in “The Lottery”
By: Monica Burch
According to Girardian theory, humans often resort to violence in order to, paradoxically, avoid a greater onset of violence. The earliest successful way humans have discovered to avoid this violence is to designate a scapegoat for sacrifice that redirects the shared violence onto one individual. This reduction of violence through scapegoating only succeeds if the people involved follow ritualistic traditions that cover up the barbaric actions and ontological emptiness behind the sacrifice, as anyone can be or not be sacrificed, the recognition of which would reveal the horrible violence designated on an actually innocent individual. The community in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” enacts Girard’s theory of scapegoating to maintain their social order. Unfortunately, over the years they have reduced their adherence to their ritualistic tradition, exposing the barbarity of the collective act of scapegoat victimage. The people in “The Lottery” for years have chosen a scapegoat, but are now questioning the very necessity of the sacrifice itself. The community is on the verge of realizing the reciprocal violence from which scapegoating has previously saved them; thus, on the verge of discovering the primitive, ontologically empty reality of their ritual. (4).
Several aspects of Girardian ritual scapegoating occurs in “The Lottery.” According to Girard, when violence “threatening the existence of a community” reaches its peak and needs to be resolved before the destruction of the community ensures, a successful sacrifice results when the community chooses an appropriate scapegoat that ends violence. This sacrifice restores order from the chaos of what Girard calls “reciprocal violence” within a community, as scapegoat theory allows a community to redirect most of its violence onto one member of the community. Once the sacrifice is complete, the violence in a town diminishes as most of the violence is resolved with the ritualistic killing.
In “The Lottery” this ritual for years has allowed the citizens to live and work peacefully. In fact, according to town myth, the lottery supposedly directly determines the prosperity of crops in the farming town. The ritual is upheld through sayings like, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” which further represent the importance placed on the sacrifice (Jackson 4). Nevertheless, the town appears anxious about its traditions, and thus, within Jackson’s story, they treated their ritual like something they just need to get over with. Thus, Mr. Summers explicitly states that they need to “hurry a little more to get it done in time” (5). While they have relied on the lottery for peace, they seem to be anxious to get it over with.
The townspeople keep the lottery alive through their patriarchal ranking system. The men are the Heads of their households. They are the wage earners, working in the labor-intensive field of agriculture, while the wives keep house. In fact, they treat women as the lowest ranking members of the community. Women in “The Lottery” receive little to no respect, represented specifically when Bobby Martin ignores the calls of his mother, but responds immediately to the calls of his father. Interestingly, the citizens unconsciously rank themselves in the same order that they prefer the scapegoat to be chosen. The town struggles with the idea of sacrificing children, shown when practically everyone worries the scapegoat might be the Hutchinson’s children, then the men as they are the money makers, and then finally leaving the women. Based on this ordering, people almost implicitly hoped Tessie would be chosen over the rest of her family. Women, like Tessie, seems to be purposefully chosen for the lottery, as it is easier to ignore a women’s cries of disproval, showing the possibly rigged system of the lottery. By choosing someone who does little for the society, the town can keep citizens who provide for the society, like a man, and citizens considered inherently innocent, like a child. The town has an easier time upholding the tradition when the scapegoat chosen is so easily disposable and the low ranking of women make them more susceptible to the sacrifice.
Girard’s theory states that this ritual sacrifice works best if the scapegoat seems truly guilty to the community and is unnecessary for communal survival. Through this believability of guilt, the ritual sacrifice redirects all violence, further reducing violence. The scapegoat needs to seem completely guilty, further supporting why children are not likely to be chosen as they are inherently innocent. The sacrifice can also seem innocent if the community purposefully, and unconsciously, pushes towards sacrificing members of the community that do little to support the community. In fact, the ritual sacrifice must be “unconscious” to succeed (4). Through unconsciously sacrificing less important members of a community, people have an easier time believing that individuals supposed guilt. This idea of scapegoat theory explains exactly why someone like Tessie would be chosen, as women have little importance in Jackson’s community. Girardian theory shows Tessie’s lack of necessity within the community helps the town unconsciously accept her supposed guilty, as she is neither inherently innocent or the support of the family. It is easier to sacrifice her as she is easier to subconsciously convince oneself she is worthy of the sacrifice. The scapegoat needs to be someone innocent, but yet the community needs to choose someone that is easy to assume guilty and should be sacrificed.
Even though these citizens try to maintain the lottery, their lack of attention to tradition leads to the undoing of the very sacrifice they rely on. According to Girardian theory, the citizens must maintain the traditions within their sacrifice to continue the illusion. Traditions within the sacrifice help maintain the farce, allowing for the murder to appear just to the inflictors. Almost all details of the tradition within Jackson’s story are completely lost; the town follows very little of its original ritual. Many of the rules that once could be explained are now arbitrary, and empty. The citizens hold the lottery on June 27th, a day with no significant meaning, yet it can be assumed that the lottery originally took place on the summer solstice, a commonly ritualized day for farming communities. Also, the ever-important ritual is carried on with similar importance, and by the same man, as dances or Halloween parties. In fact, the man who runs the lottery, Mr. Summers, adheres even less to ritual tradition than the rest of the town by showing up late to the ritual, casually talking to the citizens instead of carrying out sacred salutes or recitals, and trying to create a new black box, the most important element of the ritual. The citizens uphold little of the original tradition, to the point that “so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded” (2). Without these traditions, Girard’s theory would predict the end to the very credibility of the lottery. Without these ritual elements, people can start to see the true emptiness behind the murders.
In fact, many citizens are slowly questioning the arbitrary reason for holding a lottery, but haven’t openly accepted the truth. By questioning these arbitrary actions, the citizens break down the lottery’s reliability, as the community needs to remain completely unaware of the true nature of the sacrifice. In terms of Girardian theory, the town needs to remain unconscious of the emptiness surrounding the choice of scarified individuals. Many of the men within the town purposefully stand away from the pile of stones, implicitly exposing their discomfort surrounding the whole ordeal. While the lottery is taking place, many start to discuss if it’s still necessary, citing that other towns have “already quit lotteries” (4). On the other hand, characters like Old Man Warner represent the individual who believes in the legitimacy of the lottery because of his adherence to tradition. Warner is one who, according to Girard’s theory, abides by traditional behaviors, allowing him to remain blind to his own ontological emptiness and trust in the lottery’s success. Of course, Old Man Warner is the only outspoken voice in favor on the lottery who still fights for tradition, implicitly representing the rest of the town’s discomfort with the event.
While citizens question the lottery’s tradition, they never go as far to abolish it, as it shows them their own ontological emptiness, and admitting to ones’ own emptiness goes against human’s very reason for existing. The town purposefully keeps themselves in the dark for as long as they can to avoid the ugly truth. When referring to the box, the town refuses to replace the box out of fear of getting rid of tradition, even though every other tradition is gone. By holding onto the last shreds of tradition, the town subconsciously understands the ramifications of the lottery, but can’t face it just yet. According to Girardian theory, the citizens can never know the scapegoat is “no guiltier of disturbance, than other members of the community” (4) as this would prove the emptiness of each members of the community, as anyone can be completely innocent or guilty. If the town were to admit this truth of ontological emptiness, they would have to realize all of their loved ones died for nothing, and they could’ve died for nothing too. Through this realization, the town would understand that no citizen is different from the next in the eyes of the sacrifice, revealing their own ontological emptiness and reminding the town of its mimetic nature, further creating chaos.
“The Lottery” follows typical Girardian themes of scapegoating to avoid violence. The citizens of the measly town have participated in this lottery for countless years. Their loss of tradition has caused them to have to come face to face with the truth about their very state of being. Because the scapegoat can be anyone, it doesn’t matter who it is, proving complete ontological emptiness.
Jackson, Sherly. “The Lottery.” The New Yorker, 26 Jun. 1948, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/06/26/the-lottery. Accessed 7 Feb 2019.
Andrade, Gabriel. “Mimetic Desire.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/girard/. Accessed 7 Feb 2019.