“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948) was first published in The New Yorker and remains the most controversial story The New Yorker has ever run. The magazine was bombarded with vitriol and many cancelled subscriptions. Some readers were angry because this story ruined their day.
Why? Partly it’s because “The Lottery” is a horror story which starts in bucolic fashion then tricks the reader by shocking us. Readers thought this was a nice portrait of small town Americana, until suddenly it wasn’t.
Jackson lived in the era of the original Twilight Zone TV series. The Twilight Zone seems to have used this story as a template for stories which present to the reader a seemingly normal situation then give it a twist.
Modern readers won’t be duped so easily — we are all very familiar with that storytelling trick to the point it’s hard to believe stories didn’t always work like this: It’s a beautiful clear day, a small town is working together than bam, we learn that not all is well under the surface.
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.
— opening sentence from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
Other subscribers were angry because they felt smalltown people were being mocked by “The Lottery”. They could see the satirical angle and felt unfairly accused.
Apartheid South Africa banned the story outright. “The Lottery” remained banned in some American schools as late as the 1990s.
STORY WORLD OF “THE LOTTERY”
Unfortunately this story will continue to speak to new audiences. Anytime we have ritual, we have ritual propping up a certain set of ideas. Those ideas may be cruel and outdated, yet remain unquestioned, unchanged.
SEASONS AND JUXTAPOSITION
The symbolism of seasons is utilised ironically here. Normally spring weather and fine days indicate good things to come, or at the very least ‘change’, but here the nice, fine day is juxtaposed against the horrific events to come.
Notice, also, the man who conducts the lottery is called Mr Summers — an ironically symbolic name.
The lottery was conducted–as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program–by Mr. Summers
(Notice how this heinous tradition is juxtaposed in the same sentence alongside joyous events which bring the community together.)
SYMBOLISM OF THE BOX
The black ballot box symbolises tradition itself. It has fallen apart and parts of it have been replaced, but it remains a black box. Mirroring this description: The tradition of stoning someone each year to make the crops grow is as old as the box and although small parts of the tradition have been modified, the tradition itself remains.
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box 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.
Shirley Jackson uses the box to open and close the story, providing readers with a sense of circularity and therefore inevitability:
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.
This is a patriarchy of the worst variety. Men draw for the women, teenage boys are given more responsibility than their mothers as soon as they come of age. Yet women are not afforded the benefit of benevolent sexism. Women and girls have an equal opportunity to die.
The unseen narrator tells us that the men speak of important farming issues whereas the women ‘gossip’ — the word ‘gossip’ is used to dismiss women’s speech. This is a community who doesn’t listen to women. So when it is a woman (Mrs Adams) who points out (only after her husband tentatively introduces the matter) that other places have stopped the stoning tradition, she is dismissed out of hand by Old Man Warner. The general misogyny of the community is underlined in the scene where women aren’t allowed to draw, and if their husbands are incapacitated, ideally this job goes to his young son. Mr Summers is pitied because his wife is ‘a scold’. Again, this is a heavily gendered word used to describe women who don’t agree with men. Though we don’t get to hear directly from Mr Summers’ wife, could she be in strong opposition to her husband’s continuing this tradition?
Mrs Hutchinson is almost late to the event and jokes that she couldn’t be leaving the dishes in the sink. This would be considered shameful for a woman in this milieu, but only reflecting on women. This is the detail women are expected to be caught up in, distracting them from things like wanting a say in civic life.
This outcome, suggests Jackson, is what you end up with when communities don’t afford women equal say in matters of ethics and humanity.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LOTTERY”
“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”
“Get in, get out.” This is common advice to short story writers. But this is a story in which the abrupt ending can only be shocking after quite a bit of mundane detail. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting will recognise the characters’ clinging on to traditions and focusing on the minutiae of procedure while forgetting all about the bigger picture, or perhaps as a deliberate distraction to avoid thinking about the bigger picture.
Like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, this is a story about a community, not about a ‘main character’ or a ‘hero’. We are given names to lend verisimilitude — Jackson speaks to us as if we, too, are a part of this community and would know Bobby (by his first name) and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix.
The great weakness of this village is that they are small and insular and hew to outdated traditions without there being any outside influence to make them examine their lethal traditions. At one point someone points out, “Other villages have stopped doing this”, but without fully examining why, this change is dismissed out of hand.
The community is suffering from a bad agricultural year. They desire a good crop and will go to any lengths to achieve this.
Nature is the main opponent here, but ‘nature’ is never an interesting opposition because it has no will/desire of its own. Opponents must have a human face. In this story we have:
- The unseen character of Mrs Summers (who I’m guessing is a ‘scold’ due to her disagreeing with her husband)
- “They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
- “Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
- Tessie, who says the system isn’t fair.
Via a ballot box system, modified over many years, they will randomly select a village member to sacrifice.
The reader doesn’t know why this sacrifice takes place. Jackson herself may not have had a reason in her head — even if she did, it was wise to keep it off the page because by leaving it out, the reader can see that whatever reason the villagers have is completely irrelevant.
We’re encouraged to wonder at the reason for the lottery.
- Someone was sacrificed to ensure a good crop across the following year. I think there is text in the story to support this reading.
- Perhaps the villagers were really killed to satisfy a human urge for gore and murder, satisfied in this formalised way, preventing random deaths.
- Perhaps they need to keep the population down because there would be a food shortage otherwise.
- Perhaps it is thought that this ritual keeps the town orderly in general. I’ve heard similar arguments in favour of school uniforms. One reason for compulsory school uniforms: By imposing restriction for restriction’s sake, this keeps the student body more calm.
The battle scene of this story is the argument that takes place between the chosen and those who chose her.
This battle is so chilling because there’s so little to it. Notice the word choice:
- Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand.
- “Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called. (As if this is a sport and not a murder.)
- “It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said. (She didn’t shout or scream.)
- “How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.
There is no real screaming until the final sentence, which is where a story draws most of its power:
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
The villagers have no revelation and this is its tragedy. The reader, however, should have had some sort of revelation.
- Clinging on to old traditions can be cruel, no matter how ‘fair’ it looks.
- The thing about the feminist messages: You have to be feminist to see them. The narrator offers no judgement. We see how the women are treated and form our own conclusions. A non-feminist reader wouldn’t necessarily conclude that misogyny had a single part to play in the lethal tradition of this community.
When Old Man Warner tells us he’s been in this lottery 77 times, this prepares the reader to know, for certain, that this same tradition will carry on next year, too. Likewise, we are prepared to extrapolate this information when the two women in the back mutter to each other that the lotteries seem closer and closer together these days.
Shirley Jackson died age 48 in 1965. Although she died young her output has had a big influence on big hitting modern authors such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.
“The Lottery” is a cultural influence on more modern works such as “Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan (an Australian writer; universal setting short story). If you’ve read The Hunger Games you’ll be put in mind of that.
As for story structure, “The Last Spin” by Evan Hunter (1960) is very similar. Most of the narrative details the rules of a game, and ends shockingly and suddenly.
11 Facts About Shirley Jackson’s Lottery from Mental Floss.
Shirley Jackson Predicted America’s Fascination With The Murderess from Electric Literature