Shirley Jackson’s Lottery is one of the jewels of classic American literature of the twentieth century. This work made a massive contribution to the development of the genre of mysticism. Although the Lottery is a short story, it contains an amazingly detailed and colorful description of the American hinterland. Even the author herself found it difficult to say what she wanted to convey with her work; however, the main idea is undoubtedly pointless cruelty.
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This concept permeates the entire ritual around which the plot is built in a small town of three hundred inhabitants. Jackson accurately describes people’s lives in such a settlement, since she grew up in similar conditions, and this attention to detail only adds to the realism. The city could be considered unremarkable, if not for the annual ritual to which almost all settlement residents are subjected. However, a small part of them are beginning to refuse such an event, and there are more and more rumors that people are thinking about canceling this tradition (Jackson). Until then, however, the children of the inhabitants collect stones, preparing everything for June’s twenty-seventh. The meaning of this ritual is to identify a future victim, a person who will be beaten to death and sacrificed for the coming harvest. One of the settlers, an older man who dislikes young people for their desire to refuse to participate in the lottery, speaks of this with an ancient proverb (Jackson). According to him, the lottery has always been, and the man firmly believes that tradition helps them survive and harvest.
Although progress is moving inexorably forward, the town inhabitants still follow a tradition that is too much like the ancient peoples’ sacrifices. With these words, the author emphasizes the meaninglessness of what is happening, since there is no evidence, except for the old proverb and the older man’s words, that this lottery has some practical effect. People blindly follow tradition because the lottery has always been, ancestors established it, and it is wrong to break elders’ customs. At the same time, none of the residents, except for the victim herself, is embarrassed by the terrifying cruelty of what is happening. Before the start of the ritual, they exchange friendly greetings, discuss daily news. However, as soon as the final verdict is announced, all residents instantly turn against her as soon as the victim is found. People are not stopped either by plaintive shouts or cries of lack of justice. This includes even the victim’s relatives, her husband, and her children (Jackson). Each of them is given a stone with which people beat the poor woman to death. No one shows regret but does what everyone else is doing.
In this short story, steeped in horror, three themes form the plot’s basis. Firstly, at the root of everything lies the pointless brutality of people ready to throw stones at even the closest soul, if there is a reason for that. Secondly, with the help of an ancient tradition transferred into an idyllic setting, it is shown how little it takes for people to commit an act of cruelty and reject humanity. Residents just needed to find a scapegoat, and the presence of an ancient tradition makes them discard all unnecessary thoughts and do whatever they are told. Finally, by the way the crowd works harmoniously, Jackson shows how simply a skilled person can control a group and how easily humanity and compassion are lost in such a gathering.
Thus, Shirley Jackson’s Lottery is a terrifying work, revealing in many ways a human nature and a propensity for violence. Transferring an ancient tradition to the modern world shows how people blindly follow established rules and what occurs when they stop thinking about what is happening. Jackson’s text is a perfect example of senseless cruelty and is intended to show people how inhuman they can be.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. The New Yorker, 1948.