‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson: Short Story Analysis
‘The Lottery’ is a puritanical short story with a macabre twist penned in 1948 by American writer Shirley Jackson. The story is one of Jackson’s best pieces that took America by storm when published in ‘The New Yorker’ magazine in June 1948. People were outraged by the hauntingly unnerving twist in this otherwise puritan tale of a rural agricultural pagan custom. This short story could be termed a horror piece and a dystopian science fiction short story with a strong sociological message. Through this short story, Jackson brings out the macabre ritual performed by some Puritan American agriculturalists who have an annual lottery where the person found with a black dot on his paper is stoned to death by the rest of the villagers. This pagan custom is done willingly by every rural villager as if they were doing something natural like reading a verse from a holy book or praying aloud. They believed in the benefits of this custom to protect their agricultural interests and their village’s safety. They did not find it shameful or disgusting to stone an innocent woman to death. One can see the civilized world dabbling with the pagan rituals in ancient religious cults about agriculture. One can also see how natural it was for all the villagers to stone Tesse Hutchinson to her miserable death, knowing that no one technically was ‘guilty’ because everyone had done it en masse.
There is a strong sociological message to this short story titled ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson, who is well known for her horror books and short stories of the macabre. In ‘The Lottery’, we see the ‘crowd mentality’ at work where every year, the villagers take it upon themselves to protect their village interests by stoning one bad weed in their fine bundle of the crop. They do this like a religious ritual with gaiety; some do it like a scary chore, especially the children, pre-teens, and teenagers. Notice that children and the elderly are not exempted from being stoned to death. Everyone can have that superstitious ‘bad seed’ in them, which had to be rooted out for the community’s benefit. And nobody feels guilty after the stoning is done. We notice the Watson boy’s father had probably lost his father the previous year in the same way. The Watson boy is not broken by the loss but is ready next year on the same day, the 27th of June, to be present for the macabre ritual as the ‘man’ of his house. No one feels guilty for what they have done. They are immune to it, like some people are resistant to flu. They do it as a part of their lives here on Earth and go back to being the civil people they generally are. But as put forward so beautifully by Jackson, the question now arises, what is ‘civilized’ and what is not? We are also told to think about our lives as social animals. How much are we ‘social’ and how much ‘animal’ is very intricate and too dark to focus. It’s not been focused upon because people are afraid of the reality that the demons we create for ourselves most of the time, if not all the time, lie within us.
And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus, he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” —Mark 7:18-23
So, it is what comes from within us is what is focused on in this story. You would think you were reading something pleasant, but dark is the recesses of man’s thoughts, and it’s in these darker or rather greyer areas that we see the real face of what people are and what they can do. No reader can have the slightest clue that something could be wrong with the whole set up. One would think that the Hutchinson family was lucky and would win a basket of goodies or some homespun cloth or the other. However, the tale takes a darker shade as we read on. When we read about Tesse’s anger and indignation, we realize something is very wrong, and something terrible was about to happen to the Hutchinsons. We sit agog and then realize towards the end of the story what those pebbles and stones were set aside for by the village’s children – to throw them at the unfortunate sacrificial victim: in this case, Tesse Hutchinson. Notice that even her infant son Dave was given pebbles to throw and stone his mother; that is an unnerving image to dwell on. However, there have been numerous cases of families letting their loved ones die as sacrificial victims to pacify opposing forces in their lives. We see the survival of the fittest scenario at work here in this story titled ‘The Lottery’. We have entire history books filled with occurrences of how people in society somewhat ‘need’ a sacrificial animal or goat to save them from worse fates. Most of the time, these ‘worse fates’ are committed by the same society of people practicing them. Could it be possible that we will be acting in the same way in the near future as stated by Jackson? Mr. Summers was wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, so he was a modern man, and the village was somehow linked with urban society. Then why this bizarre ritual? Because of the dark nature of our fears, it is let out through the ruin of sacrificial goats.
As you can see, this short story is very in depth and looks deeply at social institutions and mob mentality, and human beings’ age-old customs of sacrifice. If you study history, we are a people who have been making sacrifice after sacrifice all our lives. Some sacrifices are made because of genuine issues, but some are done based on superstition. I have read quite a bit in my time as a sociology and history graduate. I have found certain parts in the human psyche are somehow tempted to need sacrificial victims for their living and functioning. It’s in us. It’s fascinating to study but not so fascinating to think it can ever become real. Want to know more about social issues close to my heart, then you can purchase my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on the products page of my blog. I’m sure you will come back with more book titles to add to your TBR list.
‘The Lottery’ as a title is deceiving as we think it is something to do with a community, church, or social service lottery. We are amused with the characters’ civility, their rustic accent, their bonhomie, and their words of encouragement and goodwill to all. However, it’s all deceiving, for lurking beneath that façade is the killer in them to stone a sacrificial victim to death a few minutes later. When we read about Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves and the crowd of villagers, encouraging them to get the whole thing done, we misperceive the goodwill. From the sharp stones kept aside to villagers’ names, the setting indirectly points to a pagan cultic blood spilling ritual that showcases the dark side of this reality. To speak about the oldest man in the village who played the lottery for seventy-seven years: Old man Warner was detached from the whole ritual and felt it was a proud moment to be part of it. He was upset with the younger ones who were not as detached as he was. He couldn’t understand why there was a need for change; he did not want any change in this ritual. This makes us think that even when we realize that our superstitious practices are harmful to society, we have people like old man Warner who don’t want any change in their way of life. Some people like Warner become grumblers and complain about the changes in their old way of living, some become violent, and then there are civil wars or worse, all because some people don’t want to change with the times and the new issues that communities are facing. Warner was not happy with how the younger generation of agricultural villagers in the north was doing away with their ‘lotteries’. He felt like so many people think today that getting out of a comfort zone is difficult. The lottery was conducted, and Tesse Hutchinson was selected to die. Tesse was brutal enough to ask why her daughter was not involved in this whole business. She got her answer: the patriarchal and very Puritan ideology saw women as subservient to men, so her daughter’s lot was with her husband’s family and not hers. First, it was the head of the family chosen, then the immediate family, and then one from the immediate family would be selected to be the scapegoat.
The story ends on a cliff hanger that blows our minds away when we realize that everyone in the village would stone Tesse to death. Here are a few take away points from this short story titled ‘The Lottery’:
- Tesse felt that the choice was made in haste when the truth was that everyone took their own time to select their allotted piece of paper.
- The black box was always kept away from the villagers’ sight as they did not want to be reminded about it during the year. That is why the box got weather beaten over the years and was placed in places like Martin’s grocery shelf, Mr. Graves’ post office, or in his barn.
- When we see Mrs. Dunbar asking her eldest son to tell his father the news after all the papers were checked, we think it refers to the lottery winner, and not that she was only waiting to see whether hers would be the family chosen to be brutally beaten to death.
- The women seemed subdued characters in this short story titled ‘The Lottery’, but we see their dark side as some of them pick the sharpest and heaviest stones to stone Tesse. They had a bone to pick with her and found a reason and opportunity to vent their true feelings of rage against her.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by Shirley Jackson. I hope to review more American writers’ works as the days go by and hope to cover most of them by the 3rd of November 2020. I am reading and reviewing books and short stories by American writers for the next few days in keeping with the ongoing US elections, the most important election of this century. One writer who has been greatly influenced by Jackson is Joanne Harris, and I have reviewed a short story penned by her titled ‘The Toymaker and His Wife’ on this blog; you can check it out for your reference. When you compare these two pieces, you’ll see the similarities in narration.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog or my Amazon author page. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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