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Tradition vs. hope: Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, Issac Asimov's The Last Question - Free Comparative Essay

This example compare and contrast essay looks at Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, Thornton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth and Issac Asimov's The Last Question. This short sample comparative essay examines how the themes of tradition and hope run through these works. While this essay does not have an introduction, it would be a useful reference for a student who wants to compare short stories or plays and is restricted by maximum page requirements.

The burden of tradition and hope for the helpless: Dueling themes in the works of Shirley Jackson, Thornton Wilder and Issac Asimov

Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, one of three works mentioned in this essay, succinctly and effectively expresses the dangers of persistent tradition. In just a few pages, Jackson reveals how tradition, bastardized by time and neglect, can lead to unspeakable horror.

The short story makes clear that the town lottery was once a solemn ritual. Old Man Warner explains that there was once a saying: "'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns." (Jackson 168). The ritual was thought to bring about a good harvest. But overtime, its traditions were shed or forgotten. "There had been . . . a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching," (Jackson 165) the narrator explains. Even the black box, the lottery's most sacred artifact "grew shabbier each year; by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained" (164). What outrages the reader is that the villagers are uncomfortable with the ceremony and could easily choose to stop -Mr. Summers says, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work" (166).

Here, tradition has cracked under the weight of modernity, but the villagers stubbornly cling to the annual execution because they are afraid of the future. "Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use the stones," (170) the narrator says. Indeed, Old Man Warner denounces the villages that have disbanded the lottery as a "pack of crazy fools" (167) who are setting themselves on a path to savagery. Warner, who is the embodiment of corrupt tradition, even urges the people onward as they stone Tessie Hutchinson: "Come on, come on, everyone" (171), he says. But it is the town itself that has descended into savagery, as they have surrendered their independence to a ritual that has long lost its meaning. By the end of the story, the reader feels a newfound wariness for those who invoke tradition for tradition's sake.

In contrast to Jackson's story, Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth is a wonderful production about the triumph of human hope. Wilder, writing in the shadow of the Second World War, uses the pessimistic and frivolous Sabina to mock critics who believed the end was near. "I don't know why we go on living at all. It's easier being dead" (Wilder 118), Sabina whines. She complains that every hour is a struggle for survival that the human race can't ultimately win: "In the midst of life we are in the midst of death, a truer word was never said" (112) she says. Not willing to give thought to why humanity continues to endure, Sabina advises, "not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate" (114).

Yet humanity proves to be resourceful. George Antrobus, who represents the ingenuity of man, manages to invent the wheel, multiplication and beer despite Sabina's complaints. Likewise, man survives ice ages, floods and wars, each time picking himself again. The fortune teller suggests this cycle of death and renewal is a part of man's experience, and she chides those who doubt Antrobus. "Some of you will be saying: "Let him drown. He's not worth saving. Give the whole thing up." I can see it in your faces. But you're wrong. Keep your doubts and despairs to yourselvesAgain there'll be the narrow escape. The survival of a handful. From destruction-total destruction," (173) she says.

The fortune teller's words foreshadow the war in the third act, where nearly everything falls apart. Yet the Antrobus family manages to thrive in the aftermath of disaster; just as the war ends, Mr. Antrobus invents a "grass soup that doesn't give you diarrhea" (226). Likewise, Antrobus understands that a unified humanity is better for the future of the race itself, and he finds a way to reconcile with Henry, even though the stage directions describe his son as "strong unreconciled evil" (235). The play's ending is a strong vote of confidence in humanity - cranky Sabina hates to admit that "We have to go on for ages and ages yet . . . The end of this play isn't written yet" (250).

Issac Asimov's The Last Question, embraces the theme of hope and takes it to the logical extreme by asking: how does one survive the end of the universe? Asimov's story, while initially bleak, suggests there can be no end for humanity.

Throughout The Last Question, man and machine attempt to stop the universe from ending. "What I say is that a sun won't last forever. That's all I'm saying, We're safe for twenty billion years, but then what?" (Asimov 207) a drunken engineer asks his equally intoxicated coworker. "Maybe we can build things up again," (208) the coworker replies. For a time, technology allows man to expand across the cosmos, but even on distant worlds, humans feel uncomfortable about the universe expiring. "Don't let the stars run down," (211) Jerrodette I cries to her father. Yet the universe's destruction appears inevitable - by the end of the story, humanity has practically merged with a galactic computer, but it still asks, "AC, is this the end? Can this chaos not be reversed into the Universe once more? Can that not be done?" (218).

Yet even the mightiest computer is befuddled. The Cosmic AC, the legacy of mankind admits it has processed the problem for nearly a "hundred billion years" but has yet to find an answer (217). But even after "the stars and the Galaxies died and snuffed out, and space grew black after ten trillion years of running down" (218) the Cosmic AC manages to endure. After all, it still has one problem left to tackle: "All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness" (218). This drive to endure in the face of annihilation is admirable. The AC soon discovers that the only way to stop the end of the universe is to become its absolute master: "The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done. And AC said, "LET THERE BE LIGHT!" And there was light- (219). Thus, AC sets the universe anew, and life is restored. Notably, Asimov ends his tale with a hyphen, suggesting this story, and life itself, endures forever.
1,132 words, 3 pages

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