Sunday, June 27, 2010

Shirley Jackson: "The Lottery"

Warning: I will reveal significant plot elements and the ending.

One of my favorite short stories is "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). It is a deceptively simple and straightforward tale. This small village holds an annual lottery, and the reader wonders just what the point is as the procedure is spelled out in some detail. However, when the winner is announced, the reader begins to understand that something just isn't right here; all is not what it seems. The winner, Tessie Hutchinson, objects loudly that the procedure wasn't fair, that her husband Bill was rushed and didn't have the chance to pick the slip he wanted. It should be done over again. Her complaints are ignored, and, instead of getting money or a valuable prize, she is stoned to death by the townspeople, and her own children take part. Now, all is clear. This is a horror story. The shock ending provides the point.

The town is obviously filled with monsters in the guise of typical rural Americans in a small village who engage in this horrific ritual every year. The title is clearly ironic for the winner of the lottery does not get a prize but a death sentence, just the reverse of what one would expect from winning a lottery.

Or, so it seems at first glance.

If one looks a bit closer, though, one realizes that the title is most apt. She did win a prize: an opportunity to die for her people, an opportunity for a meaningful death, something not granted to everyone. Among the ancient Romans, we read in one of Horace's Odes that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. In English that translates roughly as "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." In the Bible, we read "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man shall lay down his life for his friends" (John 15: 13). Tessie actually died so that her friends may live. Is this not the same justification we use for sending young people off to war? We even have a memorial to The Unknown Soldier.

I was going to post this commentary about a week or so ago, but after glancing at the calendar, I decided to wait for today, June 27th. Why? Well, the story opens as follows:

"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 lottery takes place on June 27th. Why did Jackson decide to begin the story on June 27th. I don't think it was a random choice, for June 27th in the ancient Roman calendar is Initium Aestatis. It is the Roman festival of the beginning of summer. We ourselves noted the first day of summer several days ago at the Summer Solstice--the longest day of the year. The Vernal Equinox (the first day of Spring) and the Summer Solstice are or were important days for ancient agricultural civilizations. On those days, many held rituals or religious ceremonies designed to please the gods of agriculture or nature in order to ensure a good harvest.

The size of the harvest was extremely important for these peoples. A good harvest provided sufficient food to survive the long dead seasons of late Autumn and Winter that follow. A poor harvest--many of the old and the weak and the sickly probably would not survive. The first colonists in New England suffered many deaths that first winter because of inadequate food.

Many of those rituals included sacrifices to the gods; frequently they were human sacrifices, for in what other way could a group show its devotion to its gods than by sacrificing one of its own. Those who were sacrificed were giving up their lives for their people.

Jackson provides other clues to the tie between Tessie's fate and rituals designed to ensure a good harvest.

One of the characters remarks that "over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

"Old Man Warner snorted. 'Pack of crazy fools,' he said. 'Listening to the young folk, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while.   Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery . . ."

And later, Mrs Adams remarks: "Some places have already quit lotteries."

Old Man Warner provides valuable information here. First, this village isn't an aberration for there's at least one other village that holds a lottery. Mrs. Adams tells us that some have quit already, and in the first paragraph of the story, the narrator tells us that there were some towns that had so many people that the lottery lasted for two days.

Secondly he also provides a link to the harvest with his recollection of the old saying about the June lottery and the ripening corn in his reaction to the comment about giving up the lottery. He also grumps on and suggests that without the lottery they'd all "be eating stewed chickweed and acorns," thus again suggesting a link between the lottery and the harvest. Without the lottery, they would be reduced to living off chickweed and acorns. Since chickweed and acorns aren't harvested crops but are gathered wherever found, this would hint at a way of life prior to the agricultural stage--hunting and gathering for example. His reference to living in caves also indicates a pre-agricultural society.

Some of the names that Jackson gives her characters are suggestive. For example, the M. C., or perhaps he would have been the high priest in earlier days, is named Summers, a very apt name for one conducting a festival held on the first day of summer. Summer's assistant is Mr. Graves, another appropriate name if one considers the outcome of the lottery. The only name given extra notice, and it happens in the second paragraph is "Delacroix." I think that's French for "of the cross," another significant reference when one thinks about sacrifices for the good of the people.

In the drawing, the first man is Adams (Adam?) and it ends with Zanini--from A to Z. In the Bible, the prophets had a very specific role and that was to warn the Israelites of the dangers of straying from the rules laid out for them by the Lord. In "The Lottery," we have Old Man Warner forewarning the people of the dangers of dropping the lottery.

For me, the true horror of the story is that the people go through this ritual every year and no longer know why. Tessie's death has no meaning, no significance for them any more. It has been lost along with most of the ritual, for the narrator tells us that "at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the had had been allowed lapse. There had been, also, a ritual salute . . ."

I think that Jackson has told a story about the slow death of an ancient ritual that had meaning when it first began--the survival of the people.  Over the generations, most of it has been lost, all except the sacrifice of one for the many. The story, after several readings, now seems to me to be a much richer and even darker story than it first appeared to be.

I have one more thought about the story, but I'm still kicking it around and haven't come to any definite conclusion yet. Jackson published her story in 1948, just a few years after the Nuremberg Trials held in 1945-6. In the trials, the German defendants who had taken part in the horrors of those concentration camps insisted they were not responsible, that they were just following orders. Is Jackson's story a commentary on what happened in the concentration camps in Germany?

Any thoughts here?

Overall Rating: a story that has stayed with me for years and gets deeper each time I read it.


  1. I read this story not too long ago-I agree it is about rituals that have become largely meaningless-it is about the old ranting against the young-as your post suggests-you can find lots of echoes to old religions and rituals-I think it is a good story of the second level

  2. Students always enjoy the Jackson's story when I include it in the freshman literature courses. The foreshadowing and management of pace (along with the 3rd person point of view) are superbly managed by the author, and students not previously familiar with the story are always blown away by the ending. That is a bit of a problem, though, because they focus so much on the ending that they gloss over most of what occurs before the ending.

    I resist embracing the idea of the story being motivated by Nazi concentration camps (especially because of the blind allegiance to the tradition in the town), and I prefer to focus on the title as the ironic key to the story's theme.

    Winning the lottery, usually considered wonderful, has a different meaning in the town of the story. While I avoid offering my interpretation to students, I herewith suggest that we miss what Jackson is saying if we gloss over the meanings of winners, losers, and traditions in a society that demands blind conformity to rules, mores, and laws.

    Perhaps Jackson uses the shocking violence of the ending (much like Flannery O'Connor does in some of her stories) for purposes of forcing readers to reconsider all the mundane action that precedes the ending. The ending, after all, is not the issue. The conduct of the society in the story (and in our own experience) is more important.

    Postscript: As a personal reaction to the story, I have a singular recollection whenever I read the story, and that involves my experience of "winning" the draft lottery in 1965. That "winning" number could have easily ended with my "stoning" in Vietnam. I was more fortunate than Tessie. My reaction, though, is a skewed and subjective reading.

  3. I've never known what Jackson had in mind, which proves it was a story worth writing and worth reading. If you can fit your message into a single sentence, why not just write down that sentence and hand it out to people? You'd save a lot of time for both parties.

    But I know what "The Lottery" always makes me think of, whether or not this has anything to do with the author's intent. People are always willing to benefit from the sacrifices of others and be unwilling to make any sacrifice themselves. Think of wealthy families voting in favor of a war when there's no danger they or their own children will be obliged to fight it; it's okay that someone else will lose a son or daughter. Tilly thinks the lottery is unfair when she's the chosen one; presumably it's been going on her whole life, but did it ever strike her as unjust before?

  4. mel u,

    Yes, I agree. I think that the meaninglessness of old rituals is clearly one of the important themes in the story. Behaviors or actions that are repeated frequently become performed without thought. The ritual parts that have been forgotten are often those that are supposed to remind the participants of the reason behind and the importance of such rituals.

    You wrote: "I think it is a good story of the second level."

    What do you mean by "second level"?

  5. R. T.,

    Yes, I also found it useful in teaching intro lit classes. And, yes, the downside, to some extent, was the ending. It really grabbed those who had not read it before. I had heard that it was dramatized on TV many years ago, but I was unable to locate it.

    I hadn't thought of O'Conner in this context, but you are right. And, even the titles are ironic: "The Lottery" and "A good man is hard to find" are two very ironic titles.

    Thanks for the gentle reminder: I don't know why I thought her name was Tilly. I need to change that.

    I'm not sure about the connection with the Nazi death camps either. It's just a idea that I'm not sure what to do about. I wonder if I would have come up with the idea if the story had been written a decade or more later.

  6. RAB,

    Yes, it's an extreme version of NIMBY. Tessie never seemed to think anything was wrong until her husband ended up with the marked ticket. And, I doubt if she would have said anything if it had been some other family.

  7. it"s about how harmful blindly fallowing a government or leader can be dangerous. It was written around WWII, think of hitler, stalin, how their people knew what their government was doing was wrong, but never did anything about it and never raised concerns until it was happening to them.

  8. Grant Watson,

    Blindly following a leader or a tradition can definitely be harmful. One should always ask questions, regardless of how benign the situation appears to be.