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A Theme Of Mindless Brutality In The Lottery Novel

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Historical Violence of Humans in “The Lottery”

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson was published on June 26, 1948. This short story received a lot of criticism during this time, due to Jackson’s depiction of a whole town stoning one of their citizens. Many complained through letters that the story was completely disturbing and they had no idea what the purpose was. Even though readers at the time were shocked at the barbarity in the story, it is analogous with the violence of the story’s historical and political context. Around 1948, when Jackson wrote this story, World War II had just ended and racial segregation was prevalent. Both of these major events are infamous for the brutality that took place and the countless people that were killed. Through the violence of this era, “The Lottery” can be analyzed to reveal the theme that all humans are capable of mindless brutality.

To begin with, the theme of humanity’s capacity for violence can be conveyed through the racism of the time period. Racial segregation was a widespread problem in America, mainly affecting the Southern states. Jackson wrote this story when the Jim Crow law was enforced. The Jim Crow law made the segregation of blacks and whites legal, and it was primarily imposed using vicious measures. The process of lynching was commonly executed, where one or more African-Americans were publicly murdered by crowds of white people. The stoning in “The Lottery” can be seen as a form of lynching. All of the citizens in this unnamed town gather together, and one person is randomly chosen to be stoned to death. Before the lottery takes place, the citizens act amiably towards each other, conversing about pleasant topics. Once a person is chosen however, the demeanor of the crowd changes, and they quickly turn on Tessie Hutchinson, who happens to be the person to “win” the lottery. This sudden change can relate to those who participated in lynching African-Americans. The mobs involved consisted of ordinary citizens, men and women of many ages, who tended to make events like lynching a sort of festivity. This helps express Jackson’s main idea that anyone can commit acts of terrorism.

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Additionally, most lynchings occurred because of unreasonable justifications. Usually the African-Americans injured and killed were falsely accused of crimes or convicted for accidental happenings, such as touching a white person while walking through a crowd. Similarly, in “The Lottery,” there is no reason behind why a citizen is picked to be stoned every June 27th. The ceremony is only a tradition that has either lost its meaning or never had one to begin with. Here Jackson is revealing how a majority of the violence that humans commit is purposeless. Humans often believe that the torture they commit is for the greater good. In the case of racial segregation, African-Americans were demonized and treated as though they were less than human with no reason other than their skin color.

Perhaps an equally horrific event, compared to racial segregation, that occurred within the historical context of “The Lottery” is World War II. Lasting from 1931 until 1945, the brutal effects of this war stretched across the world, sparing no nation. This universal aspect of WWII can relate to the purpose Jackson conveys that savagery may happen anywhere. In “The Lottery,” Jackson does not specify where the town is located. This fact and the idea that the lottery occurs in every town helps support how violence can occur everywhere and by everyone.

Within the midst of World War II, one of the most tragic events in history occurred, which included the barbaric slaughter of approximately six million Jews. The Holocaust is another example of how humans are capable of senseless violence, as Jackson portrays in “The Lottery.” Those that participated in the killings of the Holocaust were Nazis under Hitler’s command. Despite this, they were still men who went home each evening to eat dinner with their families. Similarly, in the story, everyone will “go back to work” (249) after they participate in stoning Tessie Hutchinson. Here Jackson implies that all the citizens will return to acting as if everything is normal after the lottery like they do every year. This nonchalance at the pain they inflict is representative of Jackson’s view that humans are generally abusive beings.

In the Holocaust, Hitler targeted innocent people of almost every ethnic background and diversity— Jews, prisoners of war, Serbians, homosexuals, Catholics— excluding those of the Aryan race, whom Hitler considered superior. This wide array of victims can be partially related to how in the short story, anyone has a chance of being chosen in the lottery. Both in the story as with real life, no one is excluded from being harmed through acts of maiming; it does not matter whether they are guilty of a crime or purely innocent citizens. Overall, the Nazis killed about 1.2 million people during the Holocaust. Not only can the malicious behavior of humans been seen through how many died in this travesty, but also through the conditions of the concentration camps. These torture camps were distinguished by the intense labor, filthy facilities, limited food, and cruel punishments prisoners had to endure. There were at least 40,000 different concentration camps, the most famous being Auschwitz in Poland, where approximately 1.6 million Jews were murdered.

Another way the Holocaust can be used to analyze “The Lottery” is how the children in both situations are affected by the ferocity surrounding them. The children of Nazis were taught both how Jews were inferior to them and how inflicting violence was normal. These teachings made barbarity seem almost trivial to German children, at least during that time. In some schools, real weapons were often used to train students for war. Similarly, Jackson describes the children in the short story as gathering in “boisterous play” (247) to accumulate stones in preparation for the lottery. By portraying the preparation of the lottery as a game for children, Jackson is revealing to readers just how desensitized humanity has become to mutilation, and what effects this can have on the youth within society.

Next, there are political moves enacted by the United States during this time period that can contribute to analyzing the violence within “The Lottery.” This includes the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In both of these events, people were tortured and killed for reasons they had no control over. A majority of those killed due to the atomic bombs were Japanese and Korean civilians, who had no influence over the attack of Pearl Harbor or Japanese military resistance. In a similar sense, the characters have no control over the lottery. They have no control over who is to be chosen, since it is a random draw. Also they have no control over the happening of the event itself, since it is a tradition that has occurred for generations.

Furthermore, the dropping of the atomic bombs helps to reveal how Jackson believes the suffering humanity engenders is senseless. While the United States felt as if dropping the bombs would have a purpose—to end World War II—they caused about 200,000 innocent deaths and launched the Cold War. There is a form of irony in the fact that the United States used violence in order to stop war, and in this violence causing another war. Hiroshima was targeted because the city was a major military base, and the second bomb was originally meant for Kokura, another military city. However, the sky was too cloudy to go through with that location, so Nagasaki was targeted. Even though US military knew Nagasaki housed a greater number of non-military citizens than Kokura, they still went through with the bombing. This persistence of committing murder with the knowledge of more innocent people dying further supports the theme of how cruel humanity is as a whole.

In continuation, another political matter of the time that influenced the barbarity Jackson portrays in “The Lottery” is the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in America. In 1942, President Roosevelt decreed that all Japanese-Americans were to be placed in internment camps. This action had little to no justification, because it was already determined that the Japanese-Americans posed no harm to the United States. Those forced in internment camps were not the people to attack Pearl Harbor, they were only American citizens of Japanese descent. Even after World War II was finished, and the Japanese-Americans were released from the internment camps, they were not reimbursed for the terrible conditions they endured.

Even though there were multiple events that contributed to the plethora of violence occurring during the time Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” the theme of how all humans are capable of purposeless torture does not only apply to this time period. Savage acts upon innocent people can be traced throughout history, in every war, conflict, and political context. Mainly, the purpose Jackson means to convey through the violence in her story, is that no matter the location or time period, there will always be people committing terror upon others. The story suggests that this is the way of human nature, but it does not condone this behavior.

In conclusion, the multitude of violence that occurred in the historical and political context of the short story is enough for anyone to question how humane the human race truly is. Through “The Lottery,” Jackson demonstrates how capable humans are of destruction without reason, reflecting on events during the 1940s. From World War II in Europe to racial injustice in America, murder could be spotted around the world. Compared to the savagery of this time period, it is surprising how Jackson received letters expressing disgust about the violence of “The Lottery.”

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