Published in the New York Times on June 26th,1948, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is currently known as one of the most controversial short stories in American history. While that issue of the NY Times was not intended to be particularly special, it ended up being a true literary milestone because it contained one of the most chilling stories ever told. Mrs. Jackson’s story is unlike other books about the lottery because it has a very dark take on this popular theme.
The story begins with a very thorough rendition of the local customs from a small American town for the June 27th lottery. But even from the first lines, you can tell that this lottery was nothing like the lotteries that we play today.
While people are extremely excited to play Powerball or Mega Millions nowadays and take part in the game with enormous enthusiasm, the lottery in this short story appears to be more of an obligation for most of the town residents than a source of entertainment.
The first to arrive for the lottery event are the children, who want to be prepared. And so, they gather stones and pick the biggest and roundest and put them in a pile. This is the key element of the story, as it brings about a bad omen for the game.
Then, the town’s men come in and they stand together far from the piles of stones. Their main topic of discussion is the current state of the local agriculture, but they appear to have a largely uneasy feeling about it.
Soon after the men come the women, their wives, who appear to be putting in an effort to maintain a normal mood by exchanging bits of gossip. To make the bad omen even more present, we’re told that the children were extremely reluctant to join their parents.
To set off the lottery ritual, Mr. Summers, the official conductor of the games makes his appearance with a black wooden box. He is followed by the town’s postmaster, Mr. Graves, who is carrying a wooden stool that he places in the middle of the square.
The black wooden box had always been part of the lottery tradition. The one in use is the second one to be made for the game and in spite of it being extremely old, the townsmen did not want to “upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box”.
This suggests the crucial role that tradition played in the small town, as well as the crippling fear that the people had of making any changes. The only accepted additions to the lottery props seem to be the sheets of paper that Mr. Summers put in because the traditional wooden chips ended up being too few for the town’s growing population.
The lottery tradition dictated that the patriarch of each family made the draw. As we get to know more of the residents, the moment of the draws comes closer and closer. After making sure that every single family in town in properly represented, Mr. Summers calls out for the heads of the families to come up and “take a paper out of the box”.
The participants were not to look at their papers until the entire draw was completed. The anticipation and the tension of the event are gradually enhanced with each family representative who comes forward to take their papers from the box.
When Mr. Adams mentions that there is talk of renouncing the lottery tradition in a town nearby, Old Man Warner intervenes swiftly and mentions his utter disgust for such a thing. He also protests the changes that were already in place in his town, as he views straying from tradition as the road to perdition.
He mentions an old saying about this tradition, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”. This hints at the ritualistic nature of the lottery, which is yet another essential element of the story. When Mrs. Adams mentions that there is precedent for quitting the lottery, Old Man Warner becomes aggressive and says that this is nothing but trouble. Then, he calls the Adams’ a “pack of young fools”.
Soon after this, the results of the fatidic lottery are in and it seems that the chosen ones are the Hutchinsons. This is followed by a second draw, meant to select only one member of the Hutchinson family.
The participants are Bill, the father, Tessie, the mother, and their three children, Davy, Nancy, and Bill Jr. The entire town is shaking and dying to know which of them will have the white slip of paper with the black dot on it.
The second lottery draw is exponentially more dramatic, as Bill Hutchinson makes all of his children draw a slip of paper, as if unaware of the horrific outcome. The entire crowd breathes easily as they find out that all the children drew blank sheets of paper.
The holder of the ticket with the black dot was Tessie Hutchinson, who immediately protests. But Old Man Warner goes out of his way to put an early end to her complaints before the situation gets out of hand.
Once again, the lottery tradition is carried out until its gruesome end, all while Old Man Warner urges the townsmen to take part. To find out what Tessie Hutchinson’s fate is and to experience the growing terror of the ritual, you will have to read the short story for yourself.
The main theme of Shirley Jackson’s short story is the desperation with which people cling to ancient traditions that promise the preservation of current values and that prohibit change. Moreover, it is meant to point out just how damaging it can be to adhere to outdated rituals out of fear.
The lengths that people would go to in order to remain in line with their peers are far bigger than we can ever imagine. And the most dramatic part is the fact that protest to these rituals only appears from those who have stepped out of the lines.
However, their realization remains purely contextual. The moment when they see the errors of their ways comes all too late for their salvation. As for their peers, their refusal to face the consequences of their actions is translated by finding motivation for them, which eventually leads to holding up the ritual even further.
The fact that Shirley Jackson was courageous enough to write such a story soon after the end of WWII is worthy of our admiration. We hope to see more and more voices brave enough to call out the truth in spite of the aftermath.
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