Shirley Jackson wrote several short stories, but she is broadly remembered because of her short story The Lottery. This story is considered one of the best American short stories of the 20th century. It centers around several themes, such as the role of traditions, parenting, and scapegoating.
The Lottery’s Plot
The story starts with a very peaceful description, “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.” The villagers are gathering to participate in an annual lottery, which will take about 2 hours. It starts around 10 in the morning, with the participants going back to their homes for lunch at around noon.
Despite this initial scene, The Lottery is a horror story. This type of setting is very unusual for this genre. In the second paragraph, the readers learn that the children are the first ones to assemble at the square. The boys are stuffing their pockets with stones, picking the most beautiful and round ones. This type of warning at the beginning of the story is foreshadowing.
Mr. Summers, a man, who represents authority in the short story, carries out a black wooden box. He stirs up the papers inside of it. The black box is ancient, meaning that this lottery tradition continued for a very long time. Until this moment in the story, there is no real indication of what is about to happen. The reader does not know what prize people will be able to win.
Until the lottery starts and everyone takes its turn. A boy from the Hutchinson family draws, and the readers realize that the lottery is not about winning. The head of the family tries to argue with Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves when he gets the results.
The next step in the lottery is a ritual. Every family member of the selected household has to draw a lottery ticket personally. The one who gets a paper with a black dot on it will have to be stoned to death. A wife and a mother, Tessie Hutchinson, is the one who gets the paper with the black dot. At that moment, she starts saying that it is not just. However, it is too late. People already took the stones and started throwing it at her. Even babies have to participate in this ruthless ritual. The story ends with the words, “Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.” Even her husband and kids became her executioners. They showed no sympathy for her.
One of the most important themes in The Lottery is the family theme. Tessie Hutchinson’s family members did not demonstrate any loyalty to her, which was gruesome. When Nancy and Bill, her kids, opened their papers, they felt relieved as “both beamed and laughed.” They knew that one of their parents was about to draw the unfortunate ticket and be stoned to death. This attitude shows that in situations like this, an individual cares only about self-preservation. In The Lottery, families do not have an emotional bond, only a social one.
There is another critical aspect of the family theme. It is how gender operates within the community and a family unit. The father is the one who initially draws the slip. This fact shows that men are superior to women in this society.
It is peculiar to see that Tessie Hutchinson is a female character that speaks the most in the story. Nevertheless, she is the one who will be killed by society and her family.
As the readers see in the story, the parents incentivize violence from a very early age. They do not teach kids to rely on their understanding of right and wrong. Children are encouraged to follow traditions blindly. It symbolizes indoctrination and brainwashing that happens even in the modern world.
The Role of Traditions
Another vital issue that Shirley Jackson raised in The Lottery was the role of tradition. A man called Old Man Warner is a conservative force in the story. He explains what the lottery was initially meant for, “Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn will be heavy soon.” Basically, he is talking about a connection between the corn and the lottery. He implies that human sacrifice will better crop growth. The reason why the current generation does it is that they want to follow the tradition. They do it because they always have been doing it. It is also backed up by the authorities. They make sure it happens every year on the same date.
Shirley Jackson shows what can happen if people will do things without examining them.
The black box in the story symbolizes an outdated ritual. Over the years, the rules remained the same with some minor changes.
There are several significant undertones in Shirley Jackson’s critique of the behavior she described. First, is that people should stand up against authority if something is not just. Society should be able to protest to challenge an outdated status quo. Second, in the story, Shirley Jackson criticized democracy. As we see, everyone in the story is happy about the lottery. Even Tessie Hutchinson does not oppose it before it turns against her. So, if the majority wants to do something, it does not automatically make it right. Third, Shirley Jackson criticizes small-town life. She moved to Vermont, the villagers there never accepted her. She expresses that evil can happen even in small, peacefully looking places. Not to repeat the mistakes of Nazis, people should carefully examine their actions.
Shirley Jackson’s story is very applicable to American society. There are many ways in which this short story could be interpreted in today’s world. Mainly because it has an open ending.
One of the ways to interpret it is through the theme of discrimination. Turning a blind eye towards those who are suffering is less complicated. It is more challenging to stand up for their rights. People participate in systemic cruelty towards marginalized communities, animals, each other. When it does not personally affect you, people are more likely to ignore it.
If the readers take the example of Tessie Hutchinson, they will understand one thing clearly. She could protest against the cruelty of the tradition, only when it affected her.
The readers do not see hundreds of those who were stoned before her. There will probably be more people stoned in the future. The villagers are not ready to revisit this ritual and give up on it. Even though the society portrayed in the story is dystopian, there are some similarities with today’s world.
Regardless of the current progress, society remains cruel. Sexual and ethnic minorities are frequently blamed for all societal problems. The phenomenon of scapegoating is rooted deeply in people’s minds. We can connect it with the tradition of blaming the weak for the issues as they do not have a voice.
The mass incarceration of African Americans, profiling, and hate crimes against Muslims after 9/11, mass deportation of immigrants in the United States are all The Lottery modern examples of scapegoating and discrimination. The fact that the story appeared after the Nazis were defeated is also essential. This was a historical example of following the authority unquestionably. Even after it, people are not willing to change. Americans can still show indifference to those affected by violence and unjust treatment. The idyllic setting proves that cruelty can happen anywhere at any given moment in history.
As a society, misfortune is treated as a casual thing. It is very similar to the way the villagers treat the lottery. They simply go ahead with their lives after murdering a person.
The Lottery’s Aftermath
The aftermath of The Lottery proves that the story has a lot of similarities with our society. People received it with a lot of criticism as well as praise. Some individuals were wondering if the lottery existed.
The author received letters from the readers after the short story was published in The New Yorker in 1948. Many of them she received that summer were from people who wanted to know if such lotteries existed. They desired to watch them in real life.
This essay on The Lottery by Shirley Jackson aimed to provide a close look at it. We explored some of the central themes and symbols of this story. Nevertheless, there are many more aspects that one can decide to focus on. Undeniably, the short story written by Shirley Jackson is still relevant 70 years later. Now more than ever, people should fight mob mentality, injustice, scapegoating, and reject outdated tradition.
- Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic by Hattenhauer, Darryl. State University of New York Press, 2003. Print.
- The Lottery by Jackson, Shirley. Mankato: Creative Education, 2008. Print.
- Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy by Murphy, Bernice. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Publishers. Print.