The villagers, in their perversion of the Christian tradition of suffering and sacrifice, have reverted to the ancient ways, the pagan ways of the stone men. They have clearly forgotten the significance of tradition. The lottery box, a symbol of the very tradition that is being barbarically kept, is itself in disrepair. The black box was in use long before old man Warner, the eldest of the citizens, was born; it was in poor condition and in need of being replaced, “but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” (Jackson 262). The villagers kept the box, a symbol of tradition, although they had forgotten its original purpose and the lottery’s original rituals. The baseless thinking of the villagers is something that Jackson speaks to in the story since she “has a strong underlying antipathy to village life and the narrow village mentality”(Bellman 2010).
Black is generally associated with evil in literature, and the fact that the black box is in danger of falling apart speaks of the symbolic significance of the lack of understanding tradition, for without understanding, tradition loses its structure and it too begins to fall apart. The lack of meaning in the pagan tradition is made even sharper when the narrator advises in the story’s denouement that “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (Jackson 266). Something about the primitive nature of stones as weapons is embedded in the cell memory of humanity as is something dark, as dark as the black box, something that compels man to evil in spite of Jesus’ sacrifice to ensure the continuity of goodness and peace on earth. In spite of the traditions of Christianity, the history of the village as a microcosm of a world habitually at war suggests that “although civilized people may no longer hold lotteries, Jackson’s story illustrates that society’s tendency toward violence and its tendency to hold onto tradition, even meaningless, base tradition, reveal[ing] our need for both ritual and belonging”(Griffin 2010).
And the last villagers, the last losers, to throw their stones at the lottery winner, at Tessie Hutchinson, were Steve Adams in the front of the pack and Mrs. Graves beside him. It is then both symbolic and ironic that Adams, symbolic of the first man and his original sin, stands beside Mrs. Graves, her name a symbol of death – the punishment for that sin. And the winner? Tessie Hutchinson? Her name is both an allusion and a symbol. Tessie Hutchinson’s name may be an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, who rebelled against the American Puritans in their strict dogma that dictated tradition in religion, ironically a strict dogmatic tradition that the American Puritans left England to escape in New England (annehutchinson.com). Then, in another dark irony, the New England becomes much the same as the old England. Then, the allusion to a woman who sacrificed herself to the Puritan code of punishment for her individual beliefs speaks of the impossibility of escaping dark, ignorant tradition. Ignorance, Jackson seems to suggest, perpetuates itself in the heart of the village of mankind.
Tessie Hutchinson’s name is symbolic, too; she represents the harvest, the dark harvest of the ignorance of man. “Tessie” means “harvest”, and she is truly the winner of the lottery. She escapes, through death, the ignorance of mankind to an everlasting joy that comes from the cross, de la croix. Her name symbolically suggests in this dark fable that the harvest of ignorance is pain and suffering.
Shirley Jackson’s story is simple in its text, just as Robert Frost’s poems are simple in their diction; however, both are deceptively simple. Both poets often speak of the dark nature of man. Jackson’s story seems to be a cautionary tale; a tale that warns of the dangers of forgetting purposes of tradition, that warns that even if the elders – the Warners among us – can’t recall tradition, then new religions for new ages must be forged, for the ancient ones are lost in the darkness of ignorance, a darkness that comes in moving away from the cross.
And in that darkness dwells danger. Jackson’s warning mankind of that danger has been clear enough for this “perversely inspired writer to warrant a respectable place for her[self] in twentieth-century” American literature (Bellman 2010).