Shirley Jackson's emotion laden short story "The Lottery," written in the wake of the Holocaust, is a grim tale that vividly highlights the latent dangers of social conformity. The story was initially published in 1948, a period marked by fear and moral uncertainty; only three years earlier, in the Nuremberg Trials, German soldiers claimed legal and moral innocence to charges of atrocious, hated-induced crimes, including mass genocide, against thousands of Jews in Western Europe. The soldiers defended their actions and disclaimed moral responsibility by testifying that they were "just following orders." In this historical context, "The Lottery" was intended as a stern warning to all people that humans possess a natural, inherent impulse to commit acts of violence, and that societal norms and pressures sometimes reinforce and condone these urges, elevating them to a level of social acceptability. Jackson effectively uses the historical context to register the resounding message that, in any decent society, these violent urges must be condemned and contained. But while the historical context is an effective tool for presenting Jackson's message, the author also makes use of other literary devices, such as contrast and symbolism, to make her point.
The story's setting is a clear symbol that draws contrast and provides a dimension of universality. "The Lottery" takes place in a "village? square, between the post office and bank" (309). The "universal setting," a tool also used by many authors in addition to Jackson, provides an inclusionary backdrop that makes the story's message broadly relevant to all readers, not just a narrowly defined, situation-specific part of the population. A further element of universality is added when Jackson sets the story on a "clear and sunny? fall-summer day" (309). By doing so, she promotes a false sense of security, serving to somewhat disarm the reader. The sunny day, village square, and gathering of town-folk are metaphors for present day, the world, and all mankind. So when the tragic ending occurs, it is a horrific shock to most readers, adding emotional reinforcement to Jackson's message.
The author's point is further conveyed through the connotations linked to the symbolic characters such as "Graves," "Adams," "Hutchinson," and "Delacroix." "Graves" establishes a dark and serious mood. "Adams" adds an element of universalism through the connotations to the first man and woman, "Adam and Eve." "Hutchinson," representing Anne Hutchinson of the Salem Witch Trials, demonstrates how society can shun those who try to bring about change, and "Delacroix" exposes the hypocrisy of people that live immoral lives while hiding behind a tenuous cloak of their religious beliefs. Together, the villagers represent all of the diversity of twentieth century society, reinforcing that Jackson's message is applicable to all the people of the world.
The stones are another classic symbol that Jackson utilizes to warn of the dangers of human nature, and blindly following tradition. When the "lottery" began, it consisted of many formalities and traditions. As time went on, however, "the original paraphernalia for the lottery [was] lost" (310), the formalities, such as the "recital of some sort? had been allowed to lapse," resulting in "much of the ritual [being] forgotten or discarded" (311). But through all of the change, the stones, which represent the violent nature of mankind, remained as an element of tradition and continuity. In a horrifying way, people willingly conformed to the traditions of society without any trace of moral objection. By preserving the stones, Jackson highlights society's dangerous tendency to condone and accept violence, and conform to prevailing mass beliefs rather than exhibiting strength of personal conviction to morality and justice.
The most dramatic aspect of Jackson's story, however, is how all of the literary devices join together collectively to form a perfect symbolic model of the World War II era. Just years before, thousands of German soldiers mass exterminated Jews in the Holocaust, and warring armies across the world killed in the name of their nations. Similar to the symbolic lottery in the story, individuals were simply following orders and conforming to established tradition. But, in neither the story nor real life did people step back, seriously question the morality of their actions, and act as strong, righteous individuals.