Sacrifice, Traditions And Poverty In The Short Stories The Gift Of The Magi And The Lottery
Comparing and contrasting two stories requires a summary of both stories to allow an understanding of the aspects that they are similar and those that they differ. Two different stories by two different authors will be analyzed in this paper, with the aim of understanding whether they have similar themes, symbols, and setting among other elements. The two short stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Gift of the Magi” by O.Henry. Some of the themes that will be analyzed from both stories include sacrifice, traditions, and poverty.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson offers the story of a traditional lottery ceremony, where instead of winning a price, the community member who picks the odd piece of paper in the lottery gets murdered by the townspeople. The Hutchinson, through their patriarch Bill, found themselves as the family that will have to produce the sacrifice for the lottery. Tessie Hutchinson, Bill’s wife, had begun protesting about the unfairness of the lottery when her husband picked the slip with the black dot in the first round. She ends up being the one who picks the slip with the black dot during the final round of the lottery and is stoned to death. “The gift of the Magi” by O. Henry provides the tale of Della and Jim, a couple extremely in love. It is Christmas time, and each goes out of his/her way to provide a gift that will be adored by the other. They part with their valuable gifts, without informing the other to buy the other a present. Della sells her hair to get a chain for James’ pocket watch, while James sells his pocket watch to get Della a set of combs. In the end, it did not matter that they bought these gifts as long as they are happy together.
One of the key themes that are elaborated in both stories is the theme of sacrifice. Both stories demonstrate how the actions taken by the characters focus on sacrificing something that is valuable to them. In “The Lottery,” the annual ritual of picking a community member who will be stoned is considered a sacrifice that will bring good fortune to the people. A family member is lost during the lottery, but the society does not see this as a loss of an individual but instead as a sacrifice made by the murdered individual to ensure that the agriculture in the region is prosperous. When Bill picks the odd slip of paper that dooms his family, it is his wife Tess that shouts that the lottery is unfair and therefore individuals should not be sacrificed for it (Jackson 55.) It is interesting to note that these community members are not being forced to participate in this activity, but rather are engaging in it because they believe that they are doing the right thing. For them, this is not a criminal and inhuman activity but rather an act of duty, which sustains their economy.
Sacrifice is also presented in O. Henry’s story but is demonstrated differently. While the community members in the lottery were sacrificing themselves out of duty, Della and James were sacrificing things they love for the one they love. Della’s hair and James’ pocket watch were not only the most valuable possessions for both of them, but they had sentimental attachments to each of them (Henry63).They were, however, willing to part with them as long as they got what each other desired. They were not blinded by their selfish needs or by duty to their marriage, but rather for the love and passion that they felt for each other. They felt that their sacrifices were worth it because they would see each other being happy. This unlike in the lottery where the sacrifices made did not make the individuals happy but rather led to a feeling of grief as community members lost their lives and family members lost their loved ones.
Another prominent theme witnessed in the two stories is poverty. Poverty forced James and Della in “The Gift of Magi” to sacrifice their most valuable possessions. The story begins at $1.87, which was all Della had, after saving for a month. It is not like Della did not work, she was working, but after deducting her necessary expenditures, she did not remain with much to save and get James a good present (Henry 62). Their living conditions are also elaborated in a manner that showcases that they are poor. It is however interesting how their love story showcases that they refuse to be held back by the notion of being poor. The author portrays them in a manner that suggests that they are rich at heart and that being poor does not hold them back from showcasing their love for each other. This is in contrast to the characters in ‘The Lottery’ where poverty leads the community members to engage in the lottery. Their human sacrifices are made to ensure that the community gains good agriculture produce (Jackson 54). Due to poverty, they do not stop to think what the lottery means for them and how it affects their community. They are intent at finding ways to end poverty even though these ways entails the death of some of their community members. The author portrays them in a manner that showcases that they are poor physically, mentally and emotionally. They do not have the rich love characterized by Della and James to see that sacrificing their loved ones is wrong.
The aspect of blindly following traditions and customs, without considering the effects they may have on other people has been showcased in ‘The Lottery.’ The community members refuse to question the lottery, and even though they have heard of other villages refusing to participate in the lottery, they refuse to abandon this tradition. While traditions can be good where they keep individuals grounded and allows them to follow the rules hence live in a certain way, they can also be considered dangerous for a society. The community members refuse to think of the consequences of their actions but rather focus on keeping the traditions alive. In the story ‘The Gift of Mag’ however, traditions are showcased as a good thing, where even though they are followed, they are do not negatively influence the characters. Giving presents on holidays such as Christmas is considered a tradition which families uphold and they show their love and appreciation for one another through it. Della and James chose to follow this tradition, out of their love (Henry 61). However, one can argue that Della and James also followed the Christmas tradition blindly. They decided to give up things they truly valued and symbolized their wealth to buy a present for each other. The tradition of buying presents for loved ones has been ongoing for a long period, but it one does not have to lack or sell a valuable possession to buy a present. Della and James would have found a small gift worth their money, which means that they would not have sacrificed their valuable possessions.
Various objects have been used in both stories to symbolize the motives behind the actions of the characters. In the lottery, the lottery box is used as a symbol for the action of human sacrifice conducted by the villagers. They have formulated an origin story of the lottery box, which has seen it symbolize their origins. The presence of the box reminds the villagers that the lottery must be held and the murdering of one of their own must occur. They justify their actions with the box indicating that without the lottery box their agriculture would not be thriving; hence they would remain extremely poor. In the “ The Gift of the Magi”,’ Della’s hair and James’ pocket watch are used to symbolize the love that each has for the other. Della loves her hair but she loves James more than the hair, and it is the reason she chooses to cut it. The same goes for James, indicating that these two objects are a symbol of their love.
The setting of “The Lottery” and “The Gift of Magi” are different. The lottery is set in a rural area. Other rural areas are surrounding the region and have each adapted to the concept of the lottery. The villagers are narrow-minded and will follow anything they are told as long as they believe following traditions. The village is small with about 300 people, which means that each one knew the other (Jackson 56). Jackson uses this setting to showcase that even though the village was in a rural area and was not heavily populated, the villagers did not care for one another but were focused on upholding traditions. The setting of the Gift of Magi is in the urban town, specifically in New York. Though the year is 1900, it is more advanced than the village in the lottery. The characters in the ‘Gift of Mag’ understand the importance of loving and cherishing one another despite their poor situation.
A reader can gain valuable lessons from both stories. One of the lessons is the importance of sacrifice. A reader understands how sacrifice can end or build a relationship. The sacrifice portrayed in the lottery is wrong, and the reader can apply it in several instances such as when experiencing violence at home. The sacrifice that is showcased in the gift of the mag is however good as it pushes one to be selfless and put the needs of those one loves above all needs. Another valuable lesson that a reader learns is that following traditions blindly may be dangerous. It is, therefore, necessary for one to be open-minded and incorporate new aspects if the traditions that one has been following are harmful.
In conclusion, even though both stories have different messages, they use similar themes and symbols to convey their messages. The theme of sacrifice, poverty and traditions have been used by both authors to elaborate their story and to ensure that the reader understands their valuable lessons.
- Henry, Ossian. The gift of the Magi and other short stories. Courier Corporation, 2012.
- Jackson, Shirley. The lottery and other stories. MacMillan, 2005.
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