Sacrifice has played a crucial role since the dawn of time. Every culture, society, and denomination has used some aspect of sacrifice in the way they either live their daily lives or who and or what they praise. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary definition of sacrifice is an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially: the killing of a victim on an altar. It’s been written in textbooks and historical novels for centuries that different cultures specifically had blood offerings, whether it is to the sun which they worshiped, or to the “god” they believed in.
Even in the Bible it states that God sacrificed his only Son. In present day society, Americans especially sacrifice on a daily basis, just maybe not to the extremes of previous humans. With the rise of the red scare around the world, the ideas of socialism and communism deep-rooted themselves into the minds of many great American literature authors. With an over-lying theme of sacrifice, and an influence from socialism, communism, and puritan New England, evolved stories such as The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Crucible by Arthur Miller.
These three great American classics deal, either directly or indirectly, with the theme and influences listed previously. When looked at on a broader spectrum, each piece seems to hold an entirely different concept than any of the others, but when broken down and searched deeper, it is clear to any logical reader that these three pieces and three authors used their knowledge and skill of language and writing.
In such ways that they expressed both their views and their reality’s upon their current and future audience; their works stay alive after years of publication and they allow the mind of the reader to wander and ponder on their message of truth and imagination. Shirley Jackson’s 1948 The Lottery, a very conflicting and controversial piece for its time, portrays the story of an unknown town set in New England that has an annual ritual to help their crops flourish for that year.
As the story unfolds, dark and mysterious clues are revealed that strike the reader in a peculiar way that is rather unsettling. By the end of this mind boggling short story, the reader is exposed to the truths of this mystery town; a stoning. The people of the village believe, have believed for years now, and will continue to believe, more than likely till the end of time, that without an annual stoning of a member and neighbor of those who live together day in and day out, their crop for that year will suffer and so will their people.
It is not obvious to the reader until the end of this short story that Jackson has decided to use the element of sacrifice as the theme of her piece, but once revealed the reader is shocked and appalled. When The Lottery was published in The New Yorker, it received numerous letters of hate mail towards the author and many subscribers cancelled subscriptions, surprising both Jackson and The New Yorker. Jackson’s use of sacrifice was taken in such a literal way, that for its time of publication, the readers weren’t prepared for such a harsh interpretation to an act of murder that wasn’t present in that society.
Today, The Lottery is rated as “one of the most famous short stories in American literature”. Another short story, Young Goodman Brown, published in 1835 by Nathaniel Hawthorne takes the reader through a terrifying and life changing “dream” that Goodman Brown has. It is not confirmed that the journey in which we read of Young Goodman Brown is a true dream but it is suggested by from Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses grave details and demonic images to propel his story and catch hold of the reader in a violent and successful way.
Hawthorne describes a scene in the forest of a ritual, or sacrifice if you may, where members of Goodman Brown’s town are committing themselves to the work of a man who appears to be the Devil. The reverend and other churchly people surround Brown and the others, seeming as if they have already given their lives to the one who Young Goodman Brown is supposedly giving himself too. Hawthorne notes that in front of the man who possess as the Devil, stands an altar.
It is unapparent if the liquid inside the altar is blood or if it is just water which reflects the fire burning the branches of the trees in the opening of the forest which this scene takes place. In comparison to Shirley Jackson’s use of sacrifice, Hawthorne uses a more subtitle form of this theme, but with his integrated use of the Devil, blood, and fire, a picture is painted for the reader that they are unfamiliar with.
Thoughts, such as the ones they imagine in their head, only appear in dreams or movies, so to have such a vivid idea of what Young Goodman Brown is experiencing, the reader can easily sense the theme of sacrifice that Hawthorne so profoundly expresses. Although Hawthorne himself believed the story made no more impact than any of his other tales, Herman Melville said “Young Goodman Brown” was “as deep as Dante” and Henry James called it a “magnificent little romance”. Years later Hawthorne wrote, “These stories were published… n Magazines and Annuals, extending over a period of ten or twelve years, and comprising the whole of the writer’s young manhood, without making (so far as he has ever been aware) the slightest impression on the public. ” Contemporary critic Edgar Allan Poe disagreed, referring to Hawthorne’s short stories as “the products of a truly imaginative intellect”. Modern scholars and critiques generally view the short story as an allegorical tale written to expose the contradictions in place concerning Puritan beliefs and societies.
However, there have been many other interpretations of the text including those who believe Hawthorn sympathizes with Puritan beliefs. Lastly, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, a play written in the early 1950’s, depicts a dramatized story based on the Salem witch trials which occurred in Massachusetts, New England, in 1692. Miller bases The Crucible on the events that took place during 1692 Puritan New England, more than two centuries before he was born. The story begins with a group of girls and one of their “slaves” dancing around a burning pot in the woods on the outskirts of their village.
Upon discovery from one of the girls’ fathers, rumors spread through the town that girls are witches. Fingers begin to be pointed at every other person stating this persons a witch and so is that one. A love affair is exposed, sending the village into an even further madness. By the end, all of the blame is set on one of the main characters shoulders, John Proctor, and because of his dignity he is hung for the alleged crimes he was convicted of. Although, obvious sacrifice is not present throughout The Crucible, John Proctor does sacrifice his life for the better of his name.
Miller wrote the play as an allegory of McCarthyism, when the US government blacklisted accused communists. Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 and convicted of “contempt of Congress” for refusing to identify others present at meetings he had attended. From these three literary examples, plus many others not presently stated, it is clear that sacrifice can be used in many different literary elements to create a captivating plot and an interesting dialogue between characters.
With any literary piece, the reaction each piece receives from its readers is crucial to the overall outcome and interpretation of the influential piece. Even though all of the above listed examples date back as early as the 1800’s, sacrifice still plays an important role in the classrooms around the nation and in the present American literature pieces being written. The concept of sacrifice teaches an important lesson to its readers and learners. In order to prevent sacrifice from playing as major of a role in today’s society, sacrifice needs to continually taught, learned, and explored.
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