"The Lottery" -- A Think Piece
Almost sixty-eight years ago, The New Yorker published a story by novelist Shirley Jackson called "The Lottery." It has become one of the most renowned short stories in American literature. Set against the backdrop of small town America, the narrative, written in third person, takes place on the 27th day of a summer month in a village of around three hundred people. The town is about to take part in an annual tradition that seems to have everyone present oddly pleasant but nervous.
There is a cast of young, middle aged, and old represented herein and the views of each generation differ regarding what they are about to do. The town's oldest man, Old Man Warner, goes on about how "people have changed" and "this isn't way it used to be done." He says: "There used to be a saying, 'lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' " When someone tells him that other counties are either considering or have already done away with The Lottery, he decries it as worthless and how others shouldn't listen to "the young people." He firmly says: "There's always been a lottery." A large pile of rocks is nearby.
As the story progresses, the man in charge of the event, named Joe, accompanied by the town's postmaster, Mr. Graves, calls everyone to order. Joe is "sworn in" to do his official duty as the Lottery organizer. Then each male head of household comes up to the podium as his family's name is called and removes a folded slip of paper from a black box, each one having been instructed not to open the paper until everyone has received his. Small talk throughout the crowd is mostly mundane, with some making remarks such as "we're next" throughout. The first round is only for the men unless someone is unable, as is the case with a Mr. Dunbar who broke his leg and his wife is drawing for their family because their oldest son isn't sixteen yet.
Once each family has his paper, they are instructed to open them. All are blank. Except one. Bill Hutchinson is holding a slip of paper with a black circle drawn in the middle. People notice immediately.
"Bill Hutchinson's got it."
His wife, Tessie, who arrived late, begins protesting "it's not fair. Bill didn't have enough time to draw the piece of paper he wanted." Her husband quiets her.
"Be a good sport, Tessie," says Mrs. Delacroix.
"We all took the same chance," Mrs. Dunbar reminds her.
At this point Joe tells Mr. Graves to collect the family's pieces of paper. There is Bill and Tessie, with sons Bill Jr. and Davey, and daughter Nancy. It is revealed that there is an older daughter named Eva who is present with her husband, Don. Tessie cries out that they should have to "take their turn" as well but Joe reminds her that married daughters draw with their husband's families. The five eligible members of the Hutchinson family are then instructed to pick a piece of paper from the box and not open it until they all have drawn. A girl in the crowd whispers she hopes it's not Nancy. One by one, each family member's paper is unfolded. Tessie has drawn the one with the black dot. There is mostly silence.
Joe says: "Okay, folks. Let's finish quickly."
While Tessie protests that "it isn't right, it isn't fair," members of the community go for the rocks, encircle Tessie, and she is stoned to death.
The end. Period. The story ceases here.
When The New Yorker first published "The Lottery," it was received with a resoundingly negative response. So negative that hundreds of letters of protest began pouring in and the switchboards were lit up with incoming calls from concerned readers, many of whom cancelled their subscriptions. The magazine forwarded the letters addressed specifically to Shirley Jackson to her. She was taken aback by the way people reacted to her story. She told a journalist that even her mother scolded her for writing it, advising her to "write something that will cheer people up." When asked what her purpose was in writing "The Lottery," her reply was vague.
"Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, 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."
Sounds good to me.
Ms. Jackson went on to write "The Haunting of Hill House," a thriller set in a haunted mansion that most critics consider one of the most important novels of the 20th Century. Even Stephen King credits it in this manner. Yet it is "The Lottery" that continues to bring the late author her most ardent attention. I first learned of the story in middle school when our social studies teacher showed us a short film made in 1969 based on the work. I remember being absolutely horrified by it. I couldn't get it out of my mind. My mother even called the school to complain about it. As I later learned so did many other upset parents who couldn't get their kids to sleep for days.
Over fifty years later, people are still talking about this story. It is a galvanizing piece of literature. Nowadays the critics are kinder and discussions are mostly people trying to figure out what it means. In spite of the author's own recollection of why she wrote it, there are other points of view which are just as valid. For me, it says that tradition, even when it's bad, is a difficult thing for humans to do away with. We feel bound to them for some reason, as if it is a betrayal of our ancestors to stop things they did for centuries. Even in the story, it is revealed that the lottery has changed over time. The box used isn't the original box but is constructed of pieces from the first one. It is old, splintered, weathered, not exactly black anymore as the color has faded. No one has yet decided to build a new one though. There is a recitation and a salute that was once included with the lottery but has now been discarded. Traditions are important to us, no doubt about it. Even when we don't do them exactly as our forebears did.
I also think there is something to do with how society destroys the individual in our world. We live in cities and towns where laws govern us and we follow structured routines, almost mechanically in a lot of cases. Society consumes a person, makes us become a functional member or discards us, sometimes violently. And permanently.
And lastly, there is an element of sacrifice that one makes for those around him. How we go kicking and screaming some of the time, as Tessie was doing when she insisted that her married daughter and son-in-law be forced to draw with the family. She knew that this would put them at risk of being killed but her survival instincts and desire to protect as much of her family as possible was at work, and she wasn't considering that in years past she was one of the people who was throwing the rocks. We give up a lot of who we are to live in our society and when it's our turn to give back, we aren't always very good at doing so. Are we?
The video of the short film I saw at age 13 is below. NBC produced a television movie based on the story with the same title in 1996 starring Dan Cortese and Keri Russell that won a Saturn Award. People are still talking about this story all these years later. It is powerful. It is disturbing. It is impossible to take your eyes away from.
Shirley Jackson died of heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. I wonder if she had any idea that this one short story would still be such a topic of debate and obsession.