Although Shirley Jackson wrote many books, children’s stories and humorous pieces, she is most remembered for her story “The Lottery.” In “The Lottery” Jackson portrays the average citizens of an average village taking part in an annual sacrifice of one of their own residents. When the story was published in the New Yorker magazine in 1948, reader response was tremendous. People were horrified by the story and wrote to express their disgust that a tale containing a pointless, arbitrary, violent sacrifice had been allowed to be published. Some also called to see where the town was so that they could go and watch the lottery. It is this last behavior, the need to feel a part of the gruesomeness that exists in American society, that Jackson so skillfully depicts in “The Lottery.”
Take for instance the recent fascination with television talk shows. On these programs we learn more than we want to about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional individuals, murder and mayhem. Even our print media proclaims our atrocities toward one another each day on their front pages. Yet Jackson wrote “The Lottery” in 1948—before gang violence, teen suicides, the threat of nuclear war, and handgun crimes reached epidemic proportions. Was Jackson looking into the future of the American society?
It has been noted that Jackson saw herself as a psychic even as a young girl. She had read more than her fair share of books dealing with witchcraft and the occult and wrote about the Salem witch trials. But, perhaps more than having clairvoyant powers, Jackson had an ability to see our present in our past. She understood that barbaric rituals once used to sustain the community in a harsh environment were often continued to enact a sense of unity and history within the community, even if they were no longer necessary.
Geoffrey Wolff, in an article in The New Leader, sees the communal bond as coming from a sort of democratic misconduct. He writes, “The story seems perfectly true. A sense of community is won at a price, and communal guilt and fear are seen as more binding than communal love.” Certainly Jackson’s story could be true. From the exactness of the June 27th date in the first line to the myriad details of the environment and its inhabitants, one can picture herself or himself in similar surroundings. Most of us have “stood together … [and] greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip” before joining the rest of our family at a social gathering. Jackson even lets us know the habits of Mr. Summers and how he “was very good at all this, in his clean white shirt and blue jeans.” We know the conversations of “planting and rain, tractors and taxes” of the men and the mundane housekeeping details of the women. Through these details Jackson allows us to identify with the town’s lottery day, and to feel as if we are a part of their community.
We also see the fear of the townspeople. We see it in the way the summer vacation’s “liberty sat uneasily on most” of the schoolchildren, and again in the uneasy hesitation before Mr. Martin and his son Baxter volunteer to help Mr. Summers stir the papers. The fear becomes more noticeable during the drawing when people were “wetting their lips, not looking around” and holding “the small folded papers in their large hands, turning them over and over nervously.” The fear is blatantly apparent once the Hutchinson family had been chosen and Nancy’s friends “breathed heavily as she went forward.” But, what we do not see is a sense of guilt in the townspeople to which Wolfe refers. Instead, we see Mr. Summers teaching Davy, the youngest of the Hutchinsons, how to participate in the ritual. We see the exuberantly grateful behavior of Nancy and Bill Jr., the other Hutchinson children, as they “both beamed and laughed, turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads.” They are certainly old enough to know that one from their family will be chosen as the sacrificial lamb, yet they show no remorse or guilt that it is not them. We even see that someone gives “little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” with which he can stone his mother. Perhaps then, the sense of guilt may be felt more by the reader of the story. The narrative technique used by Jackson helps the reader identify early on with the townspeople. When the story ends, the reader is then angered and feels that she or he has participated in the stoning through his or her identification with the characters.
It is the scapegoating of Tess Hutchinson that appalls us in the same way we are appalled by the atrocities we witness on the nightly news. Lenemaja Friedman writes in her book entitled Shirley Jackson that “the lottery may be symbolic of any of a number of social ills that mankind blindly perpetuates.” Perhaps it is because Jackson has managed to identify with those who do the scapegoating that so much has been written about the story. Each critic tries to see something new and tie the story to his or her views of the world.
Peter Kosenko, for instance, writes an extensive analysis in New Orleans Review in which he suggests that’ The Lottery” serves as an analogy of an “essentially capitalist” social order and ideology. This theory can be seen as viable if one studies the economic and political structures of Marxism and capitalism. On the other hand, critics with more of a sociological bent, such as Carol Cleveland, view the story as a fable. In her essay in And Then There Were Nine … More Women of Mystery, Cleveland says Jackson depicts American society as “acting collectively and purposefully, like a slightly preoccupied lynch mob.” With this interpretation, greed and corruption become collective characteristics of a society. Still others, wielding a historical perspective, tie the theme of “The Lottery” to the Bible or the Salem witch trials. In particular these critics often mention Jesus’ proclamation “let those of you without sin cast the first stone,” or the fact that Jackson jokingly claimed that she was the only practicing witch in New England. Others examine the story from a feminist perspective. They criticize the patriarchal nature of the village and point out that the goal of the sacrifice was “to contain the potentially disruptive force of an awakened female sexuality,” as Fritz Oehlschlaeger states in Essays in Literature.
How then is one to really understand this powerful story? Perhaps on the most basic level, it can be viewed as a story of man’s inhumanity toward man which permeates even the most outwardly looking pleasant places. Jackson, who lived for a time in Bennington, Vermont, said after the publication of”The Lottery” that she used the town and its inhabitants as models for the story. Yet Bennington was and still is a well-to-do town in southwestern Vermont. It boasts affluent families and convenient access to New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Scores of tourists travel its roads in the fall, gazing at autumn leaves against a backdrop of beautiful Green Mountains. Bennington was not evil. From where then does the pervasive evil come?
Jackson takes pains in her story to let the reader understand that the yearly stoning was a longstanding ritual. She mentions that the “original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago,” and “so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded.” Although a ritual is any activity that is followed on a regular basis, we most often think of them as ceremonial, religious activities. In fact, Jackson points us in this direction when Old Man Warner states, “There used to be a saying about Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” This statement reminds readers of what they have learned about ancient sacrifices made in the name of various gods. It has been almost two thousand years since the Christians were sacrificed to the lions in Rome; but some cultures still believe that sacrifices made to the gods will provide them with healthy crops. Although several critics have noted the lack of religion in any of Jackson’s work, one is left to wonder whether Jackson is condemning the hypocrisy of present day religions which espouse the “Golden Rule.” Certainly, after reading the story, one wonders where current day religious principles are in this small pastoral community. How is it that an entire village can so complacently stone to death one of its own each year? More importantly, how can so many towns participate in the same ritual? Although Mrs. Adams offers some hope when she says that “some places have already quit lotteries,” Old Man Warner makes it clear that to do so would be the same as “wanting to go back to living in caves.”
The fact that only men inhabit positions of responsibility in the town and the fact that only men are allowed to draw during the household choosing phase of the lottery overshadows Mrs. Adams’s statement. The way the men of the village say “Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it,” further emphasizes the patriarchal nature of the village, and the hopeful optimism of Mrs. Adams’s remark is buried within the town’s demand for tradition and ritual.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale, 1997.
Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.