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Interpreting Irony in Harrison Bergeron and The Lottery

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Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos, was once valued at ten billion dollars for her idea of a revolutionary machine that could detect diseases including cancer, diabetes, and tumors from a single drop of blood. However she was a fraud, and her Silicon-Valley startup was a hoax. Even worse, some people knew, but never could speak up due to Elizabeth’s meticulous organization of the company. Employees were never allowed to talk to each other about their tasks, and if they did resign, then they had to sign nondisclosure agreements. They were endlessly threatened by Elizabeth to stay silent, and with a board of trustees made up of the largest names in industry and politics, people felt obligated to believe in the product simply because others did. No one dared to make their voice heard. Throughout history, the connection between silence and oppression has grown. Silence is what allows hypocrisies to perpetuate, crimes to go unpunished, and rights to be violated. In dystopian literature, silence is often equal to conformity, and rebellion guarantees death. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” exemplify this, as they both discuss the blind observance of communal traditions set forth by previous generations. Specifically, the power of group mentality pushes both groups to commit barbaric actions. The irony within “Harrison Bergeron” and “The Lottery” highlight a complacency toward antiquated customs and even worse, a mob-regulated adherence to toxic traditions, exhibiting humanity’s violent silencing of those who effect positive change.

In “The Lottery,” a bucolic, pleasant setting is ironic when juxtaposed against the evil, murderous actions of the society; this underscores the savagery of mankind under a facade of perfection, where although freedom is preached and appreciated, no one is ever exempt from the shackles of herd mentality. The story starts with a beautiful description of summer: “flowers blossoming profusely and the grass richly green” (Jackson 1). Imagery of a warm, pleasant day immediately comes to mind, carefree and unrestrained, creating an atmosphere of safety. Children are playing on the grass, and the positioning of the square, “between the post office and bank,” adds to a sense of an idyllic community. The title itself refers to an anticipatory event where the promise of a winning money or prizes is imminent. However, the mood shifts as soon as the black box is introduced to the story. The black color connotes a promise of death and the once serene atmosphere of loud giggles dulls to an ominous hum. The pacing picks up through subtle foreshadowing of impending doom, as “the villagers kept their distance” (Jackson 1). Suddenly, after Tessie is announced as the “winner,” elucidation of truth appears in the climax of the last two paragraphs. Giddy with relief, everyone immediately grabs a stone to partake in her violent murder. Even friends and family do not hesitate, as Mrs. Delacroix, Tessie’s closest companion, “select[s] a stone so large she [has] to pick it up with both hands” and “someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” (Jackson 7). The role of her family is eclipsed by peer pressure, shown when they fail to provide her with protection, one of the most basic obligations of a family unit. More problematic is her husband Bill actively supporting the tradition of the lottery over the death of his wife, demonstrated when he wrenches the piece of paper out of her hand to display its black dot to the crowd. He has fallen victim to the ritual of slaughter, displaying loyalty to the wider public.

The setting—after the purpose of the lottery is illuminated to be a ritualistic vicious killing—emphasizes the nonchalance of the villagers in a more profound light. The stones are mentioned in the first paragraph in an innocuous way. Here, Jackson subtly introduces the stones as nothing more than a childhood game by describing “Bobby Martin [stuffing] his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon [following] his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones” (Jackson 1). The children are given the sinister task of gathering stones, done without protest, which demonstrates that they have been brainwashed to willingly participate in the lottery. The children gain a sense of fulfillment and validation through their collection of the murder weapon, thus feeling obligated to cooperate. By ensuring their future compliance in the act, they too will be desensitized to violence altogether after a couple lotteries. Old Man Warner, upon hearing other villagers contemplate abandoning the lottery, defends that “there’s always been a lottery” (Jackson 5). This phrase reveals his unwavering mindset of passivity; following the tradition simply because the ones before him did is the norm, and thus he approves of continuing without really ever questioning its actual meaning or purpose. Mrs. Delacroix even off-handedly tells Tessie to be a “good sport” when she is about to be murdered, showcasing the lack of awareness that the lottery has become a sort of demented leisure activity (Jackson 5). After generations of the lottery, its influence has only calcified, playing an integral role in the community’s identity. Truly, the lottery has been set in stone.

The facade of the lottery protocol hides the innate barbarity of the villagers, who are perceived to be respectable civilians. Though the lottery is meant to be the same formal procedure every year, precisely set on June 27th, the current lottery is not the same as the original. It used to start with a “recital of some sort” and a “ritual salute,” but now has neither (Jackson 2). The black box itself, once polished and new, is now “splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained” (Jackson 2). The disregard for the articles of the lottery parallel its meaning: they are a front intended to present justification to both themselves and others. The one thing that has remained the same is the act of stoning, highlighting the underlying bloodlust of the villagers, where they seem to derive the most pleasure from the killing. If they truly did the lottery out of respect for a tradition, then they would actually mend the box and perform the pre-ceremonial song. Like the box, which now is almost unrecognizable due to its years of use, the morality of the village is just as worn and disintegrating. No one follows the lottery for the sake of upholding respect, they do it simply because they want to fulfill their thirst for slaughter. When they go through the ritual, they de-individuate and consider only the need to finish the task. There does not appear to be empathy for the townspeople who will lose their life nor do the villagers consider the impact on the family members. They are not thinking about the reasons behind their actions, they are simply not thinking. The villagers are instead hiding behind a guise of planned procedure to rationalize their thirst for blood.

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Vonnegut establishes similar irony in “Harrison Bergeron” by flipping the idea that those who are blessed either intellectually or physically have the upper hand in society. Like the act of winning the lottery, the cruelty that immediately befalls those with these lucky traits directly unveils the barbaric need for punishment. Harrison is a naturally gifted man, with an impressive height of seven feet and athletic build, so to create equality by lessening his gifts, “scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard” (Vonnegut 20). Born as a genius, a completely random event, Harrison is assigned the harshest punishment so that he is supposedly equal to everyone else. He is a representation of how society could rise up to do great things, but its own debilitating rules, the handicaps imposed, only pave the way for mediocrity. This supposedly advanced society is no different from the savage ancestors of which they were afraid and tried to distance themselves away from. Like the villagers of the “The Lottery,” the government hides behind metal technology to appear sophisticated, whereas in reality they are no less savage than animals.

In “Harrison Bergeron,” even the idea of equality is ironic, where it is portrayed by uniformity, instead of individuality through equal promises of opportunity. The actual structure of society, which has hierarchy and imbalance, only further enforces a lack of progress. Even in the setting, it is apparent that the citizens are under the will of the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. An example of satire, as she rises above others while they are brought down. Glampers is a clumsy, even ugly name, yet she is the one with ultimate power. Citizens do not question her authority, and believe that obeying the rules will keep them safe from competition with each other. They have been brainwashed into equating average-ness with freedom—all while the government use their advantages to cancel out any potentially rebellious thoughts through the power of noise. With this, cruelty is justifiable as a means to maintain a perfect society. Harrison’s murder is live broadcasted on government-regulated television witnessed by his parents: “She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor” (Vonnegut 5). In the span of two sentences, Harrison’s resistance is no more, mirrored by how George promptly forgets what he has witnessed and goes to retrieve a beer. Memory is temporary, and so nothing in society has any purpose, and there is never a change to be brought. History and facts are able to be twisted in favor of Diana’s government. Irony can even be seen in the futility of handicapping, where the handicapped still retain a discernible appearance. The most beautiful ballerina can be found by looking for the one with the heaviest weights or ugliest mask. This forceful equality is achieved by bringing everyone down through elimination of beneficial attributes instead of amelioration of weaknesses, ultimately having no effect as individuality cannot be completely repressed. Again, there is no purpose of the government except to cause harm.

Irony between the two texts is found by examining the respective attitudes toward control. Though Harrison’s world is much more restrictive in thought, people are able to realize their disturbing reality; In “The Lottery,” no one fights against the wicked stoning even when free thought and movement are possible. This distinction between the two communities highlights the dangers of bystander apathy, and especially conveys Harrison’s world as all the more depressing. In “Harrison Bergeron,” George asks Hazel to think about the future but quickly forgets his question: “‘The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?’ If Hazel hadn’t been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn’t have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head” (Vonnegut 2). George contemplates life without handicaps, showing that he is able to reflect on his current state of living and has the possibility to realize his tormented state of living, but cannot remember the idea long enough. The sirens cause him to forget, making it all the more painful to read. Realizing he is shackled, yet is powerless to do anything about it. Tessie also experiences a short moment of clarity, voicing her frustration only when she becomes the next victim. As she yells “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ it is far too late (Jackson 7). Her selfishness is established, as she only cares about herself. It is thus reasonable to assume that if someone else was chosen from the box, she would not have yelled the same thing and would have continued on with the stoning. From the moment the black box was placed, her mob-regulated role as a cog in the machine of tradition was solidified.

Harrison and Tessie suffer the same heinous fate, portraying humanity as a hopeless cyclic entity always resorting to savage means to maintain the status quo, especially pertinent to Theranos’s dehumanisation of those who tell the truth. Despite their different levels of conformity, where Harrison escapes his shackles and Tessie silently stands until the very end, the two stories both end in bloodshed. In “The Lottery,” this is the norm and happens annually, and so the repetition of brutality continues each June 27th while Harrison was shot because of his flagrantly rebellious acts. The ends are the same, though the means differ. It is necessary that, in both texts, people died violent and public deaths, to confirm the continuation of each society’s values. These individual demises can be broadened to both stories, where all “dead,” metaphorically. In “Harrison Bergeron,” the deletion of the past makes people soulless, walking around with neither purpose nor rational thinking. Same in “The Lottery,” where it is only a matter of time before a person picks the marked slip of paper. This disregard for human value is illustrated in the real-life example of Theranos’s suppression of the truth. When Tyler Shultz, grandchild of George Shultz, contacted local authorities, concerned about the inaccurate machines and unsanitary conditions of the labs, Theranos lawyers showed up at his house, trying to force him to sign documentation that he was lying. His own grandfather, who was on the board of directors at the time, even believed Elizabeth over him. Shunned from his own family, and berated in public by Elizabeth, Tyler had to endure constant negativity by almost everyone. Elizabeth, much like Diana Moon Glampers, did not care about what methods she had to use, as long as she could maintain the facade of the empire she had built up. Luckily, it all came crumbling down as more evidence surfaced and others came forward, and she now awaits trial in August 2020. A rare instance of positive pack mentality, as it only takes one person to inspire the same drive in others.

Through the prominent irony in both “The Lottery” and “Harrison Bergeron,” an accurate depiction of innate human violence is uncovered. Tessie’s brutal story, compared to the peaceful setting, is Shirly Jackson’s criticism of the ossification of tradition without reflection, while Harrison’s brave selflessness is Kurt Vonnegut’s criticism of total equality and communist ideals, which result in hindrance of momentum due to the absolute control of the handicapping government. In society today, these stories still carry heavy meanings. Though no-one wears collars around their necks filled with lead balls, there are equally as damaging, invisible barriers. People are afraid to voice their opinions due to the potential backlash they may face. Humans are even more afraid to tell the truth, as evidenced by the social injustices that have occurred in the past decade. The censoring of the Rohingya genocide, the Uighur genocide, and even climate change are all examples of history’s repetitious nature, where governments or giant corportations do not want news to get out. Herd mentality supports this, where people feel that they are not capable of change due to the sheer number of individuals against them. As we progress into the future, have we truly made any noteworthy impact? Or are we just sheep in a worldwide herd? Surrounded by daily reminders of the cruelty of our world, hope is hard to find. Conformity is the new currency, and those who are oppressed are often poor in resources, making rebellion more and more difficult to carry out. Silence sweeps us under the waves of corruption, and we are tasked with the impossible: rising up for a breath of untouched air. Silence is consuming, silence is deafening and silence is hypocritical. We must let our voices ring out.

Works Cited

  1. Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The New Yorker. 28 June, 1948. Web. 12 Jan. 2010.
  2. Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. “Harrison Bergeron.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Oct. 1961. Web. 12 Jan. 2010.

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Interpreting Irony in Harrison Bergeron and The Lottery. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/interpreting-irony-in-harrison-bergeron-and-the-lottery/
“Interpreting Irony in Harrison Bergeron and The Lottery.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/interpreting-irony-in-harrison-bergeron-and-the-lottery/
Interpreting Irony in Harrison Bergeron and The Lottery. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/interpreting-irony-in-harrison-bergeron-and-the-lottery/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
Interpreting Irony in Harrison Bergeron and The Lottery [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/interpreting-irony-in-harrison-bergeron-and-the-lottery/
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