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Symbolic Reality: Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery”

1103 words - 5 pages

Symbolism is a powerful device in fiction and writers frequently turn to it in overt and subtle ways. Sometimes a time or place is symbolic of a state of being, just as ordinary objects may take on greater meaning because of what they represent: themselves, but also a condition, feeling, or manifestation of something of great importance to a character. It is also possible, however, for symbolism to expand in a way that actually provides the foundation of a work, and this is the case in Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery.” In essence, Jackson has something disturbing to say about humanity and the force of tribal ritual. To that end, she creates a world that is itself wholly symbolic, ...view middle of the document...

The setting is also a village like many around it, and this adds to the fairy tale quality of the opening. All that is missing, in fact, are the introductory words of, “once upon a time.”
What this then translates to is setting that is purely symbolic. This is so perfectly pleasant and ordinary a landscape, it is a template upon which the unexpected will be all the more sharply defined, and Jackson then turns to another literary device to augment the weight of the symbolic scene: suspense. That is to say, by drawing out the ordinary and simultaneously indicating a great event to come, the symbolic character of the village square takes on a strangely disturbing quality of its own. It is so pleasant and normal, there is an inevitable sense that whatever is coming will defy normalcy, simply because there would otherwise be no direction in which the story could go. The men gather in the square and talk about the crops, the women exchange gossip, and all of this conveys that the lottery awaited is important; certainly, everyone in the village is making quite sure they are in place early. Suspense is sharpened by the trajectory of the action and even the phrasing, as Mr. Summers – his name also symbolic of ordinariness – prepares to begin what Jackson now now refers to as the “ritual.” The word is powerful in a way that “lottery” is not, so there is a growing unease as to the nature of this unknown, and clearly important, event.
In the midst of this comes a distinct form of symbolism: the black box in which the names are to be drawn. This box is older than the oldest village resident, and badly worn and splintered. Importantly, is is not the original used for the rituals, indicating that the lottery is as old as the village – or perhaps humanity – itself. Even so, the box in question has a powerful presence in the story. It is used only for these occasions and set aside the rest of the year, and this adds immense significance to the “slips of paper” that are to fill it. As handled by Summers and as regarded by the men and women, the black box has a quality that may only be called sacred,...

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