The Lottery

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Themes and Colors
The Juxtaposition of Peace and Violence Theme Icon
Human Nature Theme Icon
Family Structure and Gender Roles Theme Icon
The Power of Tradition Theme Icon
Dystopian Society and Conformity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Lottery, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Power of Tradition Theme Icon

The villagers in the story perform the lottery every year primarily because they always have—it’s just the way things are done. The discussion of this traditional practice, and the suggestion in the story that other villages are breaking from it by disbanding the lottery, demonstrates the persuasive power of ritual and tradition for humans. The lottery, in itself, is clearly pointless: an individual is killed after being randomly selected. Even the original ritual has been forgotten, and the first black box is long gone, so the lottery no longer seems like a religious ceremony made significant by sacred objects. Now that these significant objects have vanished, the lottery is upheld simply because of the villagers’ belief in tradition—not a belief in any higher power. The villagers do not appear to believe that the choice of the marked slip of paper is fated, ordained, or spiritual in any way. No benefit of the lottery is described. Does it keep order? Maintain the social structure? Encourage villagers to behave a certain way? The only clear statement in favor of continuing the lottery is Old Man Warner’s insistence that ending the lottery would bring “nothing but trouble.” He equates removing the lottery with society regressing, “going back to live in caves” and “nobody working anymore.” Yet Old Man Warner’s support of the lottery has no explanation other than the importance of tradition. In this way, the story captures the circular logic that gives tradition its strength.

As with several other themes in this short story, Jackson uses a single concept to point to a universal idea about human beings. In this case, Jackson shows how traditions hold power over human beings simply by continuing to exist, and how these traditions resist critical thought or attempts at change. This is not an attack on all traditions, or an argument that all traditions should be given up, but rather a reminder of the dangers of blindly following tradition simply because it is tradition—of letting a tradition guide one’s actions regardless of its morality or usefulness.

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The Power of Tradition ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Power of Tradition appears in each chapter of The Lottery. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Power of Tradition Quotes in The Lottery

Below you will find the important quotes in The Lottery related to the theme of The Power of Tradition.
The Lottery Quotes

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here.

Related Characters: Mr. Joe Summers, Old Man Warner
Related Symbols: The Black Box
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

As the villages begin preparing for the annual lottery, the story presents the objects and rituals involved in the lottery. One of these is a black box from which the villagers draw pieces of paper according to their family groups. This passage describes the authority the box itself has in the lottery, and how objects can take on a mysterious power when they have been used as part of a tradition for a long time. Every world religion has significant objects and artifacts, as do many secular traditions, and this passage references this universal idea: humans value traditions and the objects that are associated with them, often for no other reason than becausethey are old and associated with tradition.

This quote also shows the villagers operating as a collective whole. An individual, such as Mr. Summers, who has a different idea of what to do (in this case, change the black box) doesn’t persist against the popular opinion that the box shouldn’t change. This shows the willingness of individuals to conform to the popular opinions of society, and how such group conformity can even lead to monstrous traditions like the lottery itself.


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…at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had been, also, a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching.

Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:

As the villagers prepare for the lottery, some of the changes in the tradition over time are discussed. The villagers are not able to agree on what were the original rituals associated with the lottery. The rituals are not fully forgotten, but have evolved, or diverged into different possibilities. This is an excellent example of one problem with prioritizing traditions—sometimes traditions change naturally. The villagers are dedicated to preserving the black box, while at the same time readily acknowledging that other things about the lottery have changed. This shows hypocrisy in the villagers' thinking, as they cling to traditions that are shifting over time. If the ritual of the lottery has changed or been lost with time, the reader must question whether the lottery itself is still relevant. The reader learns that other towns have ended the lottery entirely. Is it time for this town to change too?

Despite the different theories about the original rituals, one common thread is the pageantry of these rituals. A recital, a chant, a procession—all these rituals are publicly enacted and give a solemn tone or a celebratory tone to proceedings. These are familiar acts, of the kind that mark funerals and weddings, holidays, and protests. Humans universally use pageantry to mark significant days and events. In this way, this passage shows the universal and familiar qualities of the lottery, to chilling effect.

“Me, I guess,” a woman said, and Mr. Summers turned to look at her. “Wife draws for her husband.” Mr. Summers said. "”Don't you have a grown boy to do it for you, Janey?” “Horace’s not but sixteen yet,” Mrs. Dunbar said regretfully. “Guess I gotta fill in for the old man this year.”

Related Characters: Mr. Joe Summers (speaker), Mrs. Janey Dunbar (speaker), Clyde Dunbar, Horace Dunbar
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

The first stage of the lottery requires the head of each household to draw a slip of paper from the black box on behalf of his household. This task is always completed by the men of each family, with one exception this year: Mrs. Dunbar must draw for her incapacitated husband, who cannot attend the lottery. The discussion around this event shows the sexist assumptions behind the system of the lottery itself. The "head of household" is always assumed to be a man, meaning that a grown son will draw for his mother, as Mr. Summers wonders about in this passage.

The women accept this hierarchy—that only men can handle the responsibility of drawing for the lottery—as Mrs. Dunbar's statement and tone shows. She takes on the role of head of her household only “regretfully.” This is one of several passages that show the importance of the structure of the traditional family and the dynamic between men and women to the proceedings of the lottery. The formal proceedings of the lottery highlight the importance the village places on a patriarchal family hierarchy.

A tall boy in the crowd raised his hand. “Here,” he said. “I'm drawing for my mother and me.” He blinked his eyes nervously and ducked his head as several voices in the crowd said things like “Good fellow, Jack,” and “Glad to see your mother's got a man to do it.”

Related Characters: Jack Watson (speaker)
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

The first stage of the lottery features the head of each household drawing a piece of paper from the black box, and, in this case, the head of the Watson household is the son, a young man named Jack. This quote implies that Jack’s father is dead, as he is not present to represent his family as the other men do. Gender is prioritized over age, clearly, as Jack assumes responsibility for his mother because she is a woman, even though she is older. Jack's youth is clear from this passage, as he is described as a “boy” and he blinks “nervously” as he comes forward. Jack is encouraged by being called a “good fellow” and “a man,” clearly showing that manliness and good character are associated with leading a household. Women are not treated as leaders in the lottery.

The reaction of the villagers to Jack’s involvement highlights the traditional gender roles in this village: men lead and women follow. The support of the villagers encourages other young men to value the ability to lead, to take care of women (including their mothers), and to uphold tradition in the village.

Old Man Warner snorted. “Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly. “Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody.”
“Some places have already quit lotteries,” Mrs. Adams said.
“Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.”

Related Characters: Old Man Warner (speaker), Mrs. Adams (speaker), Mr. Joe Summers
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

As the lottery continues, Old Man Warner and Mr. and Mrs. Adams discuss the possibility that the lottery could end in their village, as it has already been dispensed with in other places. Old Man Warner speaks out vehemently against the termination of the lottery. Old Man Warner is a persuasive, if irrational, speaker. He doesn’t argue for the value of the lottery, but instead just belittles those who advocate for its removal, undermining their ideas by calling them “crazy” and “fools.” He also defends the lottery by saying that it is part of the forward progress of society and civilization. He makes this argument by associating the end of the lottery with other regressions, like living in caves, not working, eating primitive food—which are presented as obvious mistakes to the average listener or reader. Old Man Warner places giving up on the lottery in the same foolish category in order to persuade his listeners.

Despite his persuasive speech, Old Man Warner believes in the lottery solely because it is a tradition. He points out that “there’s always been a lottery,” which, in his mind, is a reason to continue it. He has no logical reason for continuing the tradition, except that it is old—just like himself.

“There’s Don and Eva,” Mrs. Hutchinson yelled. “Make them take their chance!”
“Daughters draw with their husbands’ families, Tessie,” Mr. Summers said gently. “You know that as well as anyone else.”

Related Characters: Tessie Hutchinson (speaker), Eva, Don, Mr. Joe Summers
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

Tessie continues to protest about the proceedings of the lottery, despite the fact that the villagers and her husband try to silence her. Tessie’s complaints include her asking that Don and Eva also “take a chance” along with the rest of the family. Although the outcome of the lottery is still unclear to the reader at this point, Tessie’s strong reaction shows that it is not a desirable thing to be the person who picks the marked slip of paper. Although the exact identities of Don and Eva are not explained, this quote describes Eva as a daughter who is participating in the lottery with the family of her husband, Don. This implies that Eva was once a member of the Hutchinson household—probably Tessie’s daughter. Tessie knows the outcome of the lottery, yet she wants to force Don and Eva to also draw in the lottery with her family, presumably because this will increase the number of people participating in stage two of the draw, which only features the Hutchinson family. If more people draw, Tessie herself will be less likely to draw the marked slip of paper.

This quote shows a universal human need for survival and self-protection. Tessie is willing to risk her daughter and her daughter's husband in order to increase the chances of her own survival. Tessie is not a hero, despite her initial self-confidence and protestations against the barbaric lottery. Furthermore, the tradition of a daughter joining her husband to participate in the lottery shows again that women are treated as secondary to men in this village. According to traditional gender roles, a woman marries into her husband’s family, and not the reverse.

Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and forced the slip of paper out of her hand. It had a black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company office.

Related Characters: Tessie Hutchinson, Bill Hutchinson, Mr. Joe Summers
Related Symbols: The marked slip of paper
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

Once the members of the Hutchinson family each draw a slip of paper in stage two of the lottery, the children open theirs and are relieved that their slips of paper are blank. Tessie doesn’t unfold hers until her husband forces her hand open, revealing that she has been chosen by the lottery. This act shows Bill Hutchinson’s dominance over Tessie. When she first appears in the story, Tessie is self-confident and funny, but her husband draws for their family in the lottery, tells her to shut up when she complains, and reveals that she is the victim of the lottery in this scene. All of these actions show Bill Hutchinson following the traditions of the village and the proceedings of the lottery rather than listening to his wife or trying to protect her from the lottery. It is clear that his love for her (if he does love her) is outweighed by his devotion to the tradition of the lottery.

The slip of paper in Tessie’s hand was marked by Mr. Summers with a pencil the night before. This detail shows the contrast between the object of the marked slip of paper and the importance the villagers place on it. The process of making the slip of paper is as mundane and unimportant as it could be. But at the same time, the marked paper decides the very life or death of a person. This reinforces the ridiculousness of the lottery, and how the villagers adhere to it despite many indications that it is insignificant and pointless, in addition to being cruel and harmful. It is only tradition and a fear of change that keeps the village entrenched in this monstrous practice.

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box…

Related Characters: Tessie Hutchinson
Related Symbols: Stones, The Black Box
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Tessie has been selected as the victim of the lottery, the truth of the tradition is revealed as the villagers pick up stones. This quote describing the villagers’ act of arming themselves with stones reminds the reader of several key ideas already established in the story. First, this passage points out the aspects of the lottery that have been lost, but they are set up as different than the use of stones, which has been consistent throughout the years that the lottery has been in existence. Therefore, the villagers don’t forget to use stones, which shows that violence (unlike other details of ritual) is unforgettable. Using a stone as a weapon is part of human psychology, a primitive means of attack or self-defense.

This quote also references the beginning of the story, where the young boys were collecting stones. This early passage is recast in a grim light as these stones, which the reader once assumed to be playthings, are transformed into murder weapons. Even the young children are involved in this violence, which further shows that violence is instinctual. Innocent activities, such as children playing or the everyday life in this village, do not exclude the possibility of violence, which can occur anywhere.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

Related Characters: Tessie Hutchinson (speaker), Old Man Warner (speaker), Mrs. Graves, Steve Adams
Related Symbols: Stones
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

The story ends with the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson. She stands alone in a cleared space as the villagers approach, armed with stones. This outcome of events unfolds in the last several few lines, making the "twist" particularly shocking, partly because of the effort early in the story to establish that this is an average, nice village. The cruelty of the villagers and their collective thinking is apparent in this final passage, especially in the last words “and then they were upon her”—language that evokes the brutality of a pack of dogs, not humans. Old Man Warner is egging the villagers on as they attack, encouraging them, showing that the villagers are working as a unit. Despite the mob mentality of the villagers, specific individuals are mentioned in the crowd. Steve Adams and Mrs. Graves have already been established in the story as regular people, yet they appear eager for violence in this passage.

Tessie stands alone, her physical isolation showing that she has been isolated as a solitary voice standing up against the crowd. She tries to protest, shifting from “it isn’t fair” to “it isn’t right”—the last words the reader hears from her. She is the only voice of reason in a group that has gone insane. The fairness of the lottery has been emphasized to Tessie—as the other villagers reminded her that everyone took a fair chance at being chosen. However, it is clear Tessie's death is pointless and not right.