Frost’s persona has a neighbor who believes what his father has told him: Good fences make good neighbors. Although this rhythmic saying, this ancient aphorism, sounds pleasant and does have some significance when considered in light of neighborly relations, no such sense is present here. The stone wall is erected and repaired only because the neighbor’s father and, by implication, his grandfather and so on had built such fences. The tradition of stone fences is suggested to be a meaningless tradition, one continued by a neighbor clutching a stone in such a way that he resembles “an old stone savage.” This concept of meaningless, primitive tradition and the savagery it evokes is the subject not only of Robert Frost’s 1914 poem but also the subject of some controversial literature later in America. On June 26, 1948, American short story writer Shirley Jackson brought a storm of controversy to The New Yorker, a well established literary magazine then and now, with the publication of her short story, “The Lottery.” Jackson’s shocking tale serves as an expose of meaningless tradition, suggesting that the result is a primitive savagery.
On a literal level, the story is very easily understood; it is very basic. On June 27th in an small American village, one with no name given, the citizens, about 300 of them, gather for a public festival, much as they would for a Halloween program or a square dance. However, this seemingly and deceptively innocent tradition on June 27th includes a drawing or lottery where the winner, Tessie Hutchinson, is stoned to death by . .. well, by the losers.
The story presents itself almost as a fable about the traditions of an American public, a public that has forgotten the origins of such traditions. And as a perverse fable, Jackson’s story should reveal a message about humanity. It does. Jackson’s story speaks of the darkness of human savagery, a darkness that evolves or devolves from meaningless action, action without thought. In fact, “the story thus takes the stance that humanity’s inclination toward violence overshadows society’s need for civilized traditions” (Griffin 2010).
Since the tale is like a fable, it should be replete with symbols to support its message about humanity. Jackson’s time setting of the tale is one of the very few specific details of the story. The story takes place on June 27th, and Jackson has the reader know through exposition that some towns start on June 26th due to the amount of time that some lotteries take. It is an unlikely coincidence that The New Yorker published the story on June 26th and that the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere begins around the same time, i.e. the story begins just as the summer season, the season of growth, begins. In more ancient societies, the season of growth and its abundance determined survival for all the people in agrarian villages. Continuing that symbolic thought, the lottery in this town is conducted by a man named Summers, his name symbolic of the season of growth.
Then, the other townsfolk begin to appear with their names bearing symbolic significance in this dark fable. Here comes Delacroix, a combination of two French words, meaning “from the cross” or “of the cross.” Delacroix appears in the second paragraph of the story, but the third person narrator advises that the towns people had bastardized the name; “the villagers pronounced this name Dellacroy . . . ” (Jackson 262). They have symbolically, in mispronouncing the name meaning “from the cross,” moved far from the intentions of the cross and the traditions of Christianity.
Even their focus on the pagan summer solstice suggests a removal from the true traditions of Christianity, from the true understanding of the cross. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, gave his life to purify mankind for all sins so that man could gain access to eternal life, so that his soul would not perish; it would continue to thrive. Likewise, the villagers, in a perversion of this Christian thought, sacrifice a person’s life each year so that their crops will grow, so that enough corn will grow to feed the village for the coming year. In fact, their aphorism recalled vaguely by even the eldest among them is revealed in what “used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon . . . ‘ ” (Jackson 266). In suggesting the ultimate perversion of biblical intent, it is Mrs. Delacroix who throws the first stone – one so large that she has to use two hands, that large stone itself an emblem of a primitive society and its warlike conditions as suggested by Mr. Martin’s last name, a form of Mars – the pagan god of war. Those stones, too, were introduced almost as characters in the exposition when the children were gathering and piling them in the town square.