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The Lottery | Themes

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Banality of Evil

The term "the banality of evil" would not have been known to Shirley Jackson; it was introduced in 1963 by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi official who organized the systematic execution of millions of Europe's Jews, Arendt considers his defense: he was only following orders. The banality of evil is not merely a concept of mundane, everyday practices, but a recognition that the perpetrator of evil believes he has acted responsibly according to the terms that govern his world.

While Jackson did not possess this term in 1948, the concept was clear to her. In the small-town setting of "The Lottery," outworn traditions are dangerous and unquestioned. Because the townspeople are generally good neighbors and citizens and because they're following customs that have been passed down for years, they don't think of themselves as evil. The lottery seems obscene to the reader but normal to the participants, whose Northern European names—including Delacroix, "of the cross"—carry a sense of racial purity that is surely intentional.

The residents engage in pleasantries and value politeness. They put on a show of kindness and civility to one another, even while conducting the lottery. For instance, Mr. Summers calls every lottery participant by name and encourages the townspeople to finish the stoning quickly so they can get home for the noon meal. People chat with their neighbors, although they know one of these neighbors will soon be executed by the men, women, and children of the community. Their manners are another example of a ritual that has outlived its time.

The town's bland, stereotypical nature—it is not named, and readers aren't told the location—supports the theme of the banality of evil. Most characters are vaguely defined by only a few traits, so readers can see them as a group blindly marching in lockstep with one another.

Tradition and Ritual

Many social units, from small towns like the one in "The Lottery" to entire countries, have traditions that unite the members and are passed down from one generation to another. The lottery is such a tradition, linked to agriculture and the seasons of the earth. Old Man Warner worries that the town will move backward into a more primitive existence in caves without the lottery to unite and civilize its people. Modern touches, such as the use of paper for wood chips and the exchange of greetings rather than chants, accommodate the ritual without substantially changing it.

Conformity

The concept of group identity heightens the horror of "The Lottery." Common rituals turn isolated people into a community with a shared experience. The villagers think and act as a group, rarely disagreeing or offering dissenting opinions. Only the Adamses suggest some willingness to move beyond the lottery, and neither they nor anyone else states open dissent or even discomfort with the lottery—until Tessie Hutchinson does, after her family is selected in the first drawing. When she speaks out, many people, including her own husband, quickly silence her. When the villagers stone Tessie Hutchinson, they act together and help one another, even ensuring that one of her children takes part. The theme of conformity leads back to the central theme of the banality of evil. As Eichmann said at his trial, "I couldn't help myself; I had orders."

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