Murder for the first time… this knowledge comes as an extreme shock. The audience, having a conventional understanding of a lottery, assumes its implications are positive. Jackson decides to title her story “the Lottery;” thus, deliberately plays off her reader’s assumptions, hiding her subtle yet powerful themes and symbols from their immediate notice. A close examination of the story draws attention to details such as the life and death symbolism found in the names of the town leaders Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves (Nebeker, 101). Revelation of these symbols conveys meaningful clues behind the ordinary activities and dialogue witnessed that day.
Once the initial shock of the sacrificial murder has worn off, the title of “The Lottery” begins to take on a whole new meaning, pointing to man’s blind devotion to tradition. Shirley Jackson uses the phrase “The Lottery” represent a view on human rituals. Disturbing enough is the fact that the lottery’s origin stems from the pagan ritual of sacrificing a human life for prosperities sake; however, more unsettling is the fact that in “The Lottery,” the reasoning behind the ritual has long been forgotten. This is evidenced in the story through old Mr. Warner, whose sole voice recalling a vague perception of the lottery’s impact on crop fertility is the only specific reasoning given for the ritual. Notably, some of the townspeople, such as the Adams, appear to have apprehensions about carrying on the tradition; yet, their lack of courage keeps from challenging the status quo (Jackson). From the town’s practice of this meaningless ritual, Jackson paints a bleak picture of humanity; “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.” (Jackson) The violence stands for nothing, but it is all that they remember, and only when the lottery victim faces death, do logic and reasoning find a voice.
“The Lottery,” which at first glances seems to foreshadow prosperity and wealth, actually illuminates man’s tendency to revert to violence when ancient customs go unchecked (Griffian, 46). One critic, Helen Nebeker, comments that the extreme injustice was “not of hatred, or malice, or primitive fear, but of the primitive ritual itself” (Nebeker, 108). The contrast of this theme in the story to the conventional meaning of the phrase makes “The Lottery” an ingenious and thought provoking title for this haunting tale.