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Shirley Jackson: Using Color To Symbolize Cruelty And Evil In Everyday Life

1800 words - 7 pages

Shirley Jackson

What is humanity's true nature? Are people basically good, or basically evil? Over the centuries, many people have tried to find the answer to this question, to no avail. Author Shirley Jackson takes a definite stance on the issue throughout her work, arguing that people are basically evil. Many times, this theme is obviously stated in her stories, but sometimes it is woven in more subtly. In her short stories "The Lottery,” "Elizabeth," and "Flower Garden," Shirley Jackson uses color to symbolize the cruelty and evil common in everyday life.

In “The Lottery,” Jackson tells the story of what appears to be an innocent festival in a small, rural town in the United States. All of the townspeople gather around a black box, and cheerfully take turns drawing slips of paper from it until one gets a paper with a black mark. However, it is at this point that the story takes a gruesome turn and its true theme is revealed: the person who ends up with a mark on their paper is stoned to death, in the belief that it will bring the town a better harvest. The theme of cruelty showing up in everyday life is clear in this story, since the town first appears to be an average place with average people, but quickly becomes something horrific and appalling. As Helen Nebeker points out in her article “’The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force,” Jackson attempts to show that not only is man’s basic nature cruel, this cruelty has become so rooted in traditions and everyday events that it is unlikely to ever be changed (302). This view is demonstrated throughout the story in symbolic terms, especially through the use of color.

The most obvious way in which color is used symbolically is on the box and the marked slip of paper used for lottery drawings. Jackson rarely mentions color in the rest of the story, making the continual references to the color of the black box and the slip of paper obvious. Traditionally, the color black is used to represent death; in the context of a ritual stoning, it represents both death and malice on the part of the townspeople participating in the event. As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Warren say in “Shirley Jackson: ‘The Lottery’”, much of the story is a commentary on the practice of scapegoating common in old ritual practices and in current ones such as tabloid reporting (224). This is also symbolized with the black box—the townspeople “[keep] their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool” (Jackson “The Lottery” 292) that the box is kept on when it is brought out, and focusing any visible nerves on the black box and the black mark that means their death. In this way, the color black becomes a physical manifestation of the townspeople’s cruelty, as they have come to fear it rather than the people who may kill them during the ritual.

The theme of color used to symbolize cruelty is continued in Jackson’s short story, “Elizabeth,” although it is more subtle than in some of her other stories....

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