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.
The Power of Tradition ThemeTracker
The Power of Tradition Quotes in The Lottery
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.
…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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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…
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.