The Side Effects of Casual Indifference A Critical Analysis of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery
In her short story, The Lottery, Shirley Jackson demonstrates the hypocrisy of a person through the development of the character of Tessie Hutchinson. The publication of The Lottery in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948 resulted in many cancelled subscriptions due to its gruesome plot (Franklin par. 1).
The short story follows a village of people participating in an annual tradition, the drawing of the lottery, which is later revealed to be a sacrifice to an unknown entity through death by stoning. It is suggested that the sacrifice will benefit the village. The village people mindlessly carry on the tradition knowing that they are putting their lives at risk by doing so. Tessie Hutchinson willfully participates in the annual tradition and does not speak against it until her and her family fall victim to the lottery. If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded, Alfred L. Kroeber wrote, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley (Franklin). Tessie Hutchinson illustrates casual indifference to acts of violence, self-centered nature, and one who does not question injustice until it directly affects them.
When Tessie Hutchinson is introduced in the story, right away her attitude is shown as indifferent. Mrs. Hutchinson came hurriedly along the path to the square, her sweater thrown over her shoulders, and slid into place in the back of the crowd. (Jackson par. 8). Tessie is late to the lottery because she had forgotten about it. She was so engaged in her daily responsibilities that she had not noticed the date until she noticed that her family was not at home. The village people are excused from their responsibilities to participate in the lottery, suggesting that this is an important tradition to uphold. Healthy and able villagers are required to participate in the tradition. If one falls ill or injured, a family member is ordered to draw in their place.
Although her tardiness is dismissed with a laugh, it is clear that this tradition has no true significance to Tessie herself. Like a student late for class, it is seen for the first time, Tessie Hutchinson probably regards the ceremony as routine and has got used to it, and it is no longer of much importance in her. (Fuyu Chen par. 9). Tessie feels unaffected whether the tradition happens or not. As it is Bill Hutchinson’s turn to draw for his family, Tessie jokingly encourages him. Her casual indifference to the situation is alarming, but most of the other village people demonstrate the same attitude as they watch their husbands draw a slip of paper from the black box. Tessie is indifferent because she assumes that she or her family will never fall victims to the lottery. Her naiveté and complacency are not only a danger to herself, but a danger to the entire village as a whole.
Tessie’s attitude shifts as her husband reveals that he has the slip of paper with the mark on it, stamping his entire family to draw from the black box in the second round. Tessie begins to feel panicked, her chances of becoming a sacrifice just increased greatly. Suddenly it is unfair to her and she views the tradition in a new light, or perhaps a new darkness. Even with the shift in attitude though, Tessie still appears indifferent. However, this time it is indifference towards the fate of her family members. She tries to include her daughter, Eva, who is married into a different family. ‘Daughters draw with their husbands’ families, Tessie,’ Mr. Summers said gently. You know that as well as anyone else.’ (Jackson par 51). Tessie tries to bend the rules to her advantage and does not care that this would risk her daughter being stoned to death, as long as it increased her own chances of survival. Before the second drawing, Shirley Jackson illustrates Tessie Hutchinson as a self-centered mother. Jackson wants the reader’s view of Tessie to shift as Tessie’s does, it is difficult to grasp a specific emotion as this tradition unfolds. Jackson wants the reader to feel conflicted about their feelings towards Tessie. She sets the reader up to feel empathy towards Tessie but to question it allowing frustration to follow. Empathy for the possibility that Tessie could be stoned to death, but frustration for the possibility that this could have been prevented.
It is frightening to remember that Tessie is a mother and is willfully volunteering her own children to take their chance at becoming the next sacrifice to increase her own chance at survival. The fact that the story seems to be such a transparent attack on blind obedience to tradition may be the reason that no further explanation is necessary. But it is not just an attack on mindless, cultural conformity; it is a suggestion of evil inherent in human nature, (Shields 412). Tessie fails to consider whether she holds any blame for what is to happen to her that she’s essentially allowed to happen to other village people throughout the years.
It is not until Tessie realizes that her life is on the line that she speaks against the tradition. Earlier in the story, some of the village people spoke of the nearby villages abandoning the lottery and they spoke down on it:
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. (Jackson par 33).
From what Jackson reveals about this specific village, no one has spoken out against the tradition or considered altering or abandoning it. Old Man Warner, the oldest man in the village, illustrates the older generations being resistant to change. He believes that if the lottery were abandoned that their vegetation and crops would be no more. When Tessie begins to protest, claiming that the tradition is not fair, she is demonstrating a very common occurrence of only speaking out about injustices when they become personal. She does not view the tradition as unfair and is incredibly indifferent towards it until she falls victim and becomes the next sacrifice. 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, (Jackson par 79). Even though she is suddenly against the tradition for her own selfish reasons, it is too late to protest. Speaking out against the lottery in the moment that it becomes personal to herself does not allow enough time for any proper change to be made. Especially given the fact that the elders are so dedicated to upholding the tradition and are reluctant to abandoning or altering it in anyway. Opposition in panic is not enough to convince anyone to stop the final step of the tradition, death by stoning. ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her, (Jackson par 80).
Tessie Hutchinson illustrates the hypocritical and self-centered nature of humans. The fate of Tessie lies in her behavior, she willfully participates in a tradition that she knows she could be killed in. Her casual indifference highlights that she is comfortable in the assumption that she would never become the sacrifice and shows no concern for it to happen to others. Addressing concerns and sparking the debate of altering or ending the lottery could have saved her life and the lives of many victims before her. Tessie’s failure to speak out against casual acts of violence until she fell victim to it, ultimately cost her life.
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