Analysis (compare and contrast) of the stories ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson and
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This paper will present you with the analysis of two stories, widely acknowledged in the borders of the literary community, in terms of their context, main theme, risen thoughts and issues as well as their reflections caused by their readings. Emphasis will be given not only on their common elements regarding their thematic core but on their different way of approaching it. Both ‘The Lottery’ - written by Shirley Jackson and published on June 26, 1948 - and ‘The ones who walked away from Omelas’ - written by Ursula K. Le Guin and published in 1973 – approach the social issue of pluralistic ignorance. According to social psychology ‘pluralistic ignorance’ is a term used to depict a characteristic of humans not easily understood but powerfully evident in all periods of human history. Aristotle in his effort to interpret and analyze the human behavior developed within social groups, had said that ‘humans are by virtue mimetic creatures’. This is beyond any shadow of a doubt an indisputable truth characterizing human nature. People have always wanted to be acceptable and easily adjustable to the social groups they choose to become part of. As a result, they subconsciously or consciously decide to accept norms, ethics, rules and traditions which may not be of their preference or real beliefs. Nevertheless it is their need of belonging, of becoming an active part of a group that leads them to oppressing their personal beliefs and adopt behaviors which do not really express them. But this kind of adoption has gone much further during the evolution of human societies. People not only push themselves to following traditions and lifestyles which may not be of their character but they enter the endless cruel game of trying to convince themselves that they are not allowed to believe otherwise. It could be argued that pluralistic ignorance is a modernized, most dangerous kind of imprisonment. People cut themselves off from their physical right of free choice and enter the lifestyle of doing what all others do. Although ‘no one believes, everyone thinks that everyone believes’. It is their ignoring the fact that there may be others like them sharing the same worries, which lead them to passively following the pre-defined route of living without questioning it. Pluralistic ignorance in other words is their driving themselves to being ‘DE individuated’. People are locking somewhere in the dark their real beliefs, their original ideas, their wishes and lose step by step their true identity, their individual unique characteristics, in the name of what they have been brought up to believe is the right identity for them. Both stories show the impact of this feeling and tendency on individuals and societies and speak to the readers’ hearts since they arise thoughts concerning such a delicate tendency of the human existence, threatening the health of societies even nowadays.
Key words: Pluralistic ignorance, ‘The Lottery’, ‘Those who walked away from Omelas’
Analysis (compare and contrast) of the stories ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson and
Marcus Tullius Cicero once said that ‘A room without books is like a body without soul’ in a wish to express his personal belief in the invaluable contribution of books to people’s personal evolution and broadening of horizons. Jackson’s ‘The lottery’ and Le Guin’s ‘Those who walked away from Omelas’ broaden readers’ horizons because they bring them face to face with unanswered questions related to the nature of their existence.
In ‘The Lottery’ Jackson takes us to a village resembling the contemporary American small towns where they all know everyone, they interfere in each other’s life as an indication of caring for their neighbors and they always make sure to pass their rules and traditions to forthcoming generations. No room for changes exists or even the slightest alterations in the routine everyday life. Being a part of their traditions, ‘The Lottery’ is celebrated annually in June, a month holding its own famous background in ancient civilizations and mythologies as the period of most fiestas, celebrations and sacrifices. Some hints trouble the reader whether this traditional fiesta is widely accepted by all villagers. But no knowledge, on what this fiesta really is, exists at the beginning of the story. It is only at the end of the narration that the reader witnesses the most outrageous, awful truth. ‘The Lottery’ is the procedure through which a random person is chosen by draw to be violently stoned by friends and family. First goes the family. The leader of each family chooses a paper slip. The second round is for the members of the family. The one who draws the marked paper slip is the one to be stoned to death. Special attention should be paid to the way the preparation of the lottery is presented by the writer. All villagers move in an atmosphere of pretentious happiness. Jackson describes the social atmosphere of the women prior to the drawing: "They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip" (281). The lottery holds a tradition of seventy seven years and no villager has ever expressed any objection to it. But it this day, the 27th of June, the time of the story that Mrs. Hutchinson, the one drawn to be stoned, turns into the first person to raise an objection. The mastery in Jackson’s writing lies in the presentation of Mrs. Hutchinson. She arrives late when the first round of drawing has already finished pretending to have forgotten what day it is. Her happy mood pretending to participate in the tradition of her society turns in no moment to wild reaction when she realizes that it is her own family who is about to go through this fatal experience. She yells that her husband was made to make a hasty choice, thus choosing not what he really meant to, when she finds herself holding the marked paper slip. Her death is standing in front of her and even her son being carried away by his friends and her best friend take some stones in their hands ready to serve their alleged duty as active citizens of their social group. And the moment of her death comes.
‘Those who walked away from Omelas’
It is a few years later that the literary community is shocked once more by a similar in context story. Ursula K. Le Guin takes us to an imaginative no mapped city. Omelas is the city of eternal happiness. All citizens enjoy a permanent state of happiness and prosperity but not without cost. When citizens reach the expected age at which they can be told the truth, they learn the source of their happiness. A scapegoat, a child chosen to live in perpetual filth in the dark, is the necessary precondition upon which their city’s happiness can be built. If they decide to let this child live in freedom, respecting thus humans’ right to dignity, then they will lose everything they have. So, the reader reads in agony the following lines. The citizens have no other choice. They must make sure they keep on living in happiness so that they manage to rationalize the child’s sacrifice. This is the ultimate climax of the story itself. People are blind to the truth. Their blindness derives from their selfishness, their fear of losing their security, their being unable to realize that the foundation of their happiness is not solid. One day will come when probably one of their own children may be chosen to play the role of the scape-goat. How will they react then? No one knows because no one dares to think something like that. They all obey the predefined destiny of their living in that place. But the upturning of the story comes. There is one group of young people who manage to live Omelas. They are the ones who walked away. They are the ones who decided to turn their backs to their familiar environment rejecting its injustice. Where are they going? "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas." is the ending phrase of the story.
Comparison and contrast of the stories
Both stories depict the issue of pluralistic ignorance. This is their common thematic core. The indirect question addressed to the readers is what has really changed during the years of human evolution. How many times have there been in history when people suffered the outcomes of choices made for them before them? Numerous, one could say. And what about rebellions? Even rebellions, if seen under the aspect of being led by a tradition, by a rule set before people rationalizing it, could be considered as massive actions without all people being conscious of the reasons why they are fighting or what they are to stand for. But the main point of both stories lies in the tragedy of human existence. Humans are condemned in hypocrisy and there is a long way to go if they want to be fully aware of their actions and their real meaning. It is not that traditions are all faulty, or that no ethical values exist. On the contrary, it is the existence of ethics and traditions as bonds of human societies which face the danger of being maltreated. In my opinion, it is this kind of maltreatment that both writers want to focus on. And when maltreatment takes place, it is very difficult if not impossible, to change the route of events. But there is a significant difference in these stories. While Jackson stays on the permanent disastrous, fatal effects of this maltreatment, Ursula K. Le Guin goes one step further. She provides her readers with the belief that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. People can try to correct their mistakes. Escaping towards the unknown may not be the proper solution but it is at least an effort. And trying for a change, daring to fight for something better is the first action opening the way to free individuals to organize their lives in the framework of a new tradition, the tradition of letting people with their eyes wide open to cooperate and exchange their true beliefs and opinions in order to find what the best way to organize their lives are.
Both stories show the fear people have in admitting their mistakes, their wrong decisions, their giving in to stereotypes as long as they are not directly harmed. But when rotten foundation is the basis of their social building then no happiness or life with dignity can be experienced. As Pericles said in his speech to the Athenian citizens in the first year of their civil war against Spartans, the basis of Athena’s prosperity and democracy was that all citizens had realized the significance of cooperating in the name of common wellbeing. Common wellbeing would be the source of their individual wellbeing. No need for utopias, for hypocrisy or blindfolded eyes exists, if people learn to live in freedom which by all means is not surrending to their passions or weaknesses but balancing them in the name of common wealth.
‘The Epitaph’, Thucydides’ History II, 404 B.C.
‘The Lottery’, Shirley Jackson, 1948
‘Those who walked away from Omelas’, Ursula K. Le Guin, 1973