The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, 1949
by Shirley Jackson, 1949
First published in The New Yorker, as many of Shirley Jack-son's stories were, "The Lottery" was an early narrative of a kind of existentialist, world-weary angst that shocked readers. Mail at the magazine was heavy with readers' reactions to the calmly objective recounting of the ritualized murder of the unlucky homemaker and mother, Tessie Hutchinson. In the 1950s, when the story had become a classroom staple, few people felt it was significant that the victim of the orderly fertility process was a woman. Today that recognition underlies much of the effect of the story.
Married to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley Jackson bore four children and tried to face their unconventional life with humor, most of the time avoiding the depression that troubled her intermittently. Much of her fiction is either purposefully unrealistic or is focused on the darker side of family life (Hangsaman, about a schizophrenic adolescent; We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about a demonic child). Her overall tone resembles that of "The Lottery" in its gradual accumulation of relentless, yet seemingly harmless, details. Part of the horrific effect of Jackson's writing stems from the author's technique of unfolding plot as if it were conventional, even though it is not.
In "The Lottery," for example, the reader is first lulled into an appreciation of the beautiful June 27th morning, when the 300 people of the village are gathering stones, positioning themselves to await the drawing, and beginning the interaction that Jackson describes so carefully and so naturally. Her use of archetypal names for the leaders of the benevolent patriarchy—Mr. Summers, Mr. Graves—seems mundane until the reader comes to realize that one of the members of the close-knit community is about to be stoned to death by the other residents. Then the idyllic quality of the "summer" quickly metamorphoses into the solemn tone of "graves."
The interaction between men and women of the community is also telling. The men, particularly Old Man Warner, who is drawing for the 77th time, accept the meaningless ritual and will not hear of questioning its reason or its propriety. When Mr. Adams, whose name suggests some power to originate, tells old Warner that a nearby village is thinking of giving up the lottery, Warner's reply is "Pack of crazy fools." Like other primitive fertility rituals, this one supposedly enhances the crop, brings the community prosperity, and is life affirming. But others in the crowd lament how quickly the years go by, that it seems as if last year's lottery has just been held. Clearly, opinion within the community is divided as to the usefulness and the efficacy—not to mention the humanity—of this lottery.
Yet when Tessie Hutchinson complains after her husband Bill has drawn the marked slip of paper, it is Bill who tells her to shut up. The polarization of the crowd as they hope it is not any of the children who are chosen shows again the persuasiveness of the patriarchal order: sons have priority as do children in general; mothers, however, are expendable. To Tessie's low-voiced comment that "It isn't fair," none of the villagers responds with sympathy; even her best women friends throw rocks at her, under the justification that the old custom, the old order, is the right premise for living life. And with unexpected rapidity—after the first stones are thrown, and Old Man Warner urges everyone to continue the stoning, and Tessie protests more loudly—Jackson's narrative ends abruptly: "'It isn't fair, it isn't right,' Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her."
Jackson's brilliance is to convince the reader that the residents of the community are normal, ordinary people and that the rule that they accept so unquestioningly is no more extreme than other orders that comprise patriarchal law. Once the reader has accepted this premise (a convention that the quiet conversation among the villagers makes possible—just as no one is upset about this, so the reader can maintain tranquility), Tessie's lateness, her complaining, and her protests at her incipient death seem almost annoying. The reader quickly fits into the community and accepts the arguments of Old Man Warner as if he or she also had some vested interest in the traditions of the ritual. Society is like that: it makes people behave and forces established customs on them in lieu of the new.
Worse, the reader in irritation with Tessie almost echoes Bill Hutchinson's voice when he tells his wife to shut up, inhumane and indefensible as such a reply is. At that point in the story Tessie is worried for her husband and her children as much as for herself, and her protests are what one might expect from any person who cared about her family. The disjuncture between the community's quiet and Tessie's voicing her concern about her husband's drawing the marked slip of paper—behavior which is itself very normal—is part of Jackson's powerful irony.
Bringing in the small children as she does from early in the story (they are gathering stones, piling them up where they will be handy, and participating in the ritual as if it were a kind of play) creates a poignance not only for the death of Tessie the mother but for the sympathy the crowd gives to the youngest Hutchinson, little Dave. Having the child draw his own slip of paper from the box reinforces the normality of the occasion and thereby adds to Jackson's irony. It is family members, women and children, and fellow residents who are being killed through this orderly, ritualized process. As Jackson herself once wrote, "I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Indeed, "The Lottery" has shocked many a reader and caused them to call into question their unthinking acceptance of tradition.