The Lottery through a Different Lens
If one takes any occurrence and tries to make sense of it, there is always a philosophical theory to rationalize with it. Philosophy is all about different theories used to describe the nature of human thoughts, the nature of the universe and the correlation between the two. Regardless of what time period it is, the generation, or the situation at hand, there is always a logical explanation as to why every event takes place. Humans make decisions about every aspect of their lives and situations they are involved in whether they are aware of them or not. In Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” the town’s yearly ritual is conventional due to the philosophical and psychological aspects of the town’s villagers displaying various aspects of cultural relativism, obedience to authority, and underlying motives.
The yearly ritual, The Lottery, is appropriate within its cultural context and it should not be altered based on an individual belief of a reader. The Lottery is something the villagers of the town have done for years; that is the way they have always done it. In the society where “The Lottery” takes place, it is conventional for the stoning of one villager to take place annually. This tradition has helped to not only maintain the foundations for which the society was built upon, but it has also resulted in the continuation of connections between the citizens and their history to promote growth and learning along with a wealth of food and health for all. One of the prime examples of this tradition is Old Man Warner who said that it was his seventy-seventy year in the Lottery (Jackson 423). However, another part of the ritual was even more important, “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” (Jackson 420). Through the perspective of the townspeople during this time, the Lottery was a standard cultural practice, but for those from the outside world, it may not come across that way. “Cultural relativism refers to not judging a culture to our own standards of what is right or wrong, strange or normal. Instead, we should try to understand cultural practices of other groups in its own cultural context” (Khan Academy).
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In order to understand cultural relativism though, one must first understand what a culture is. According to Khan Academy, “culture can demonstrate the way a group thinks, their practices, behavioral patterns, or their views of the world.” Even at a young age, children in the village were learning what the norm was. The culture in which they were being raised in was molding the children to begin practicing cultural traditions as soon as possible, especially “Bobby Martin [who] had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example” (Jackson 420). It is engrained in all of their heads that the lottery is “just what happens” yearly, and it is socially acceptable to partake beginning as soon as possible. In the beginning, however, this was more than likely not the case. Someone had to initiate the act of the Lottery to begin with. Maybe it stemmed from the hatred of one person towards another, but it was further connected to an endless rainfall followed by a good crop. On the other hand, it could have begun purely by an accident of someone getting injured and another person interpreting that as a sign of good health for all. Regardless of its initiation, no one on the outside can understand or begin to know the importance of this ritual to the town until they become one of the townspeople. That is why it takes a deeper understanding of oneself and other cultures to see the importance and conventionalism of specific acts.
A large reasoning as for why people make decisions they believe are socially acceptable is due to obedience of authority. Obedience to authority can be understood as the need or desire to follow someone or something. Though there is not a named person or single figure that acts as the authority in “The Lottery,” over time the townspeople naturally decided to determine the ritual itself as the “authority” to which their obedience is tied. They feel obligated to follow through on the tradition in order to enhance their likelihood of another good harvest. This “authority” falls under a well known principle called the Social Contract Theory which states, “that people live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior” (Ethics unwrapped). For any typical society, the people within it have duties an obligations to fulfill, regardless of their personal beliefs or opinions. As for the townspeople in “The Lottery,” “[s]oon the men began to gather…,” signaling that it was time for everyone to join in their duty to their town (Jackson 420). Everyone is aware of what is to come, and they are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to continue to nourish their society and fulfill their obedience to the “authority”.
In addition to the social contract theory, Stanley Milgram did “…an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience” (Mcleod). After fully comprehending what Milgram’s experiment was proving, it is evident that the power behind the human brain to be obedient to authority is much stronger than a personal conscience. Tessie, who ended up being the chosen sacrifice, screamed out “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” but she only did so once she was the one being sacrificed (Jackson 425). Up until that point, her obedience to the authority had overruled her personal conscience. Furthermore, her personal opinion had no significance when it came to the rest of the townspeople still obeying tradition, all of which proves the results of Milgram’s experiments. Despite how powerful the impact that obedience to authority is on the human brain, there is always a motive behind every decision made.
To further deconstruct and simplify the ideas of cultural relativism and obedience to authority, there needs to be a foundational understanding of motives, what they are, and how they relate back to these major topics. Motives are typically underlying or hidden reasons for choosing to complete a task or act on something. From “The Lottery,” there are two distinct ideals that explain some underlying motives of the townspeople. The first of these is utilitarianism that ultimately states that regardless of the actions someone chooses to take, it is the consequences of those actions that determine whether the decision was good or bad. The most common viewpoint in utilitarianism is to “…choose the option that maximizes action or policy that produces the largest amount of good” (Nathanson). The motive behind the Lottery itself is to bring abundant rain to the town in order to produce enough crops for a plentiful harvest (Jackson 423). Regardless of outside opinions it is a part of their culture, and following this tradition produces the largest amount of good because having crops creates a chain reaction of improved health and wellbeing of those in the town.
Another motive which falls under the same grouping as utilitarianism is ethical egoism which focuses on an individual assurance; “…all persons ought to act from their own self-interest” (Shaver). Tessie is a prime example of where ethical egoism comes into play due to her motive for outing her own daughter by saying that Don and Eva were other households in the Hutchinsons’ (Jackson 423). Tessie’s intentions were for her own self-interest because if her daughter was included in the drawing, the probability of Tessie being chosen as the sacrifice would decrease. She did not take into consideration her love for her daughter or that of her husband for her daughter, and instead continued to serve her obedience to authority while following through with this motive. Motives have a way of exemplifying the major ideas of a story such as cultural relativism and obedience to authority in a way that makes them relatable to a reader and an audience as a whole.
Though many of the townspeople have participated in the Lottery up to this point, from the outside looking in, the practice and tradition is blasphemy and completely outrageous. Tessie Hutchinson’s very last words were “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (Jackson 425) and many analysts may argue that she is justified in her reasoning because The Lottery is nearly outdated. In the text it was stated that the villagers had “…forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box” (Jackson 425). That is merely saying that this tradition is outdated because cultures change over time, and the Lottery no longer suits the current cultural standing. That is evident when the original meaning and purpose behind the ritual was already forgotten. Therefore, it was so far gone, it would be difficult to try to reintegrate it back into the culture. Essentially there is no saving the Lottery anymore, and it should therefore no longer be continued.
It is the philosophical and psychological differences that can make a ritual so remarkable. The opinions on the tradition vary based on culture but also individual standpoints. These aspects all compose how this town defines the yearly ritual as conventional. Cultural Relativism is the idea that one culture cannot judge another when differing views are in play. When “The Lottery” is being analyzed it is easy to think that the Lottery is wrong because it might not be a ritual within the audience’s culture. The story needs to be read through a lens of culture appropriation in order to achieve a deeper understanding of how the town functions. When using that knowledge, it becomes clear that the ritual is conventional in their society and they are justified in their belief of performing it yearly. The town’s people are supportive of it because they are being obedient to the tradition, which they view as an “authority”. Underlying motives are the subconscious decisions that are made after taking consequences into consideration. The motives can either be to promote the most good or to produce good for one’s self-interest and benefit but nothing further. If one takes any occurrence and tries to make sense of it, there is always a philosophical or psychological theory to rationalize with it in order to justify it. ******* Works Cited?
Chen, Fuyu. “Analysis of Tessie Hutchinson in The Lottery.” Academy Publication, 2012, www.academypublication.com/issues/past/tpls/vol02/05/21.pdf.
“Cultural Relativism Article.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/ mcat/society-and-culture/culture/a/cultural-relativism-article.
[Shirley Jackson, The Lottery.] Kirszner, Laurie G, and Stephen R Mandell. Compact Literature. Cenveo, 2016.
Mcleod, Saul. “The Milgram Experiment.” Milgram Experiment | Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 5 Feb. 2017, www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html.
Nathanson, Stephen. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/.
Shaver, Robert. “Ethical Egoism.” Ethical Egoism, philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/ ethical_ego.html.