The Role of Silence in Arbitrary Sacrifice

Oliver Herford once said, “a man is known by the silence he keeps”. Silence can be used as a means of either protest or acceptance. Citizens in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery remain silent in regard to the evil nature of the lottery, thus blatantly accepting the senseless murder of one member of the community. In Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games, silence is used by the citizens instead to speak out against their government’s practice of arbitrary sacrifice. Arbitrary Sacrifice is the concept of randomly selecting and slaughtering someone or something for the greater good of society. For instance, the ancient Aztecs systematically tortured and killed slaves and cut their hearts out in hopes of receiving mercy from their malevolent gods.

The townspeople in The Lottery use this style of systematic murder, though their killings lack an indicated purpose. On the contrary, in The Hunger Games, the significance placed upon the tributes that are sacrificed to the Capitol is acknowledged as a social evil. In both Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery and Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games, townspeople participate in traditions involving the arbitrary selection and sacrifice of human life without regard for the ramifications of their actions; the citizens in The Lottery blindly accept the lottery as both meaningless and central to the community’s welfare, while citizens in The Hunger Games view the games as an atrocity their society forces them to commit. Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery takes place in a typical rural American farm town in the late nineteen-forties. The villagers are of a calm disposition, and there is a closely followed nuclear family model.

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The children carry themselves normally, playing with each other in a manner starkly contrasting the author’s foreboding tone. Ironically, the lottery is a family-oriented event; the head of each household selects a sheet of paper from an old, beaten down black box, and the “winning” family selects from a second lottery. Unfortunately for this family, the winner of this second lottery is stoned to death by the entire community including his or her family members. However, the villagers’ emotional attachment to the lottery prevails over the lives taken because of the practice’s historical significance. The Lottery’s foundation is the community’s attachment to and acceptance of the lottery. A literary reference book titled, “American Women Writers” edited by Lina Maniero states, “the basic theme…is the prevalence of community social evil in which all participate and all condone” (Maniero).

This argument conveys the idea that all members of the society are guilty of the crimes they commit, because they choose to continue the tradition instead of speaking out and abandoning the practice which they refuse to acknowledge as morally reprehensible. This is most apparent in the “…business-as-usual attitude on the part of the community and the willingness of the people to accept and dismiss torture-death as a common occurrence” (Friedman). Shirley Jackson writes, “Soon the men began to gather, surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes” (Jackson 291). This casual conversation is inappropriate for such a grim setting. The ill-at-ease men “stood…away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed” (Jackson 291-292).

This discomfort suggests that the men know what they are about to witness and participate in, and that the victim of their society’s backwards thinking could be anyone, even themselves. Although the villagers understand that what they are doing is wrong, they make no attempt to change or abolish the practice with which they are so uncomfortable. On a societal level, The Lottery encompasses the idea of tradition for tradition’s sake. The citizens are portrayed as being emotionally attached to the lottery, though they cannot identify its origins. Shirley Jackson writes, “The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago…by now [the black box] was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained” (Jackson 292-293). The loss of this “original paraphernalia” and the broken down, decrepit black box are symbolic of the tradition’s obsoleteness.

In her essay on The Lottery, Helen Nebeker states, “In this box symbol, Jackson certainly suggests the body of tradition – once oral but now written – which the dead hand of the past codified in religion, mores, government, and the rest of culture, and passed from generation to generation, letting it grow more cumbersome, meaningless, and indefensible” (Nebeker). The villagers choose to remain silent about the loss of most of their tradition because, “…no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” (Jackson 293). In another literary reference work titled “Critical Survey of Short Fiction” Frank N. Magill writes, “This ritual seems…essential for the welfare of the community. Even though its purpose has become obscure and its practice muddled, it continues to unify and sustain the community” (Magill). Magill argues that the community’s attachment to the lottery takes priority over the lives of the people sacrificed, as the community views it as its binding force.

“‘They do say,’ Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner…’that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.’ Old Man Warner snorted. ‘Pack of crazy fools,” he said…’next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves…'” (Jackson 297). Old Man Warner, the oldest townsperson, sees the lottery as not only necessary for the community’s well-being but ironically as a civilized practice that keeps the town from regressing.

Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games is a futuristic dystopian adaptation of the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The novel’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is a strong-willed sixteen-year-old girl who provides for her family by illegally hunting in a forest outside her district’s boundaries. Following her father’s death in a mining explosion, she is forced to be the sole provider for her mother, who enters a deep depression after the death of her husband, and her younger sister, Primrose. The Everdeen family’s district provides coal for the entire country of Panem, where the districts are forced to manufacture goods for the shining, wealthy, tyrannical Capitol. Once a year, the Capitol forces the districts to participate in a festivity called the Hunger Games.

In the words of Katniss, “Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch – this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy” (Collins 18). The annual Hunger Games is used as a punishment to the districts for a rebellion that took place long ago in an original sin-manner of penance. The Capitol demands that each district must take part in a public event called the Reaping, in which two teenagers between the ages of twelve and eighteen, one boy and one girl are randomly selected to be sent to the Capitol as tribute to compete in the Games. The Hunger Games is a nationally televised competition where teenagers are forced to kill each other until only one is alive. This victor then receives prizes for his or her family and district largely consisting of food and other provisions that are generally unavailable outside of the Capitol. Katniss, who has been subjected to the influence of the Games her whole life states, “To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol forces us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting each district against the others” (Collins 18).

The richer districts view winning the Games as a great honor and train their children in combat and survival from a young age. Katniss notes, “The exceptions are the kids from the wealthier districts, the ones who have been fed and trained throughout their lives for this moment…it’s technically against the rules to train tributes before they reach the capitol but it happens every year” (Collins 94). However, most of the districts consider the Games an atrocity they are powerless against, as they are also defenseless against the government that forces them to participate. In The Lottery, the winner’s fate is irrevocable; they are unlucky enough to draw the winning paper, thus must suffer as all the winners before them have suffered. In fact, the villagers are eager to perform the stoning in order to go about their daily lives with limited interruption.

Frank N. Magill observes that, “The victim is chosen at random, killed without malice or significant protest, and lost without apparent grief” (Magill). However, in The Hunger Games, there is an option to volunteer in place of one of the tributes. Over time, Katniss has noticed that volunteers mainly come from wealthy districts because, “…in some districts, where winning the reaping is such a great honor, people are eager to risk their lives…” (Collins 22). The untrained tributes from the poorer districts are at a heavy disadvantage and are almost guaranteed certain death, a fact that makes Katniss’s action of volunteering in place of her younger sister all the more honorable.

As Katniss takes her place as tribute, “[the villagers] take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong” (Collins 24). Though the districts of Panem are suppressed by their government, they courageously use this subtle action as protest against the Capitol’s cruelty.

The key difference between the townspeople in The Lottery and The Hunger Games is their willingness to participate. In The Lottery, the villagers are aware and willing in their roles as perpetrators and disregard the humanity of their victims. However, the tributes in The Hunger Games are not the only victims, as their entire nation is subject to their Capitol’s wrath. The Lottery’s pleasant facade diminishes as the villagers’ sinister intentions are revealed, and many villagers consider the lottery to be vital to the community’s welfare. Though they are not forced to perform the lottery, the villagers remain silent against the inherent evil of the ritual and continue the practice in order to keep their community whole. Meanwhile, townspeople in The Hunger Games are horrified by their government’s crimes against humanity but are helpless against the wrongdoings of their government.

These townspeople, cognitive of the malevolent nature of their society, use silence as their only means of speaking out. The Lottery proves the destructive nature of silence while The Hunger Games uses silence to convey their objection to a heinous act.