‘The Lottery’ by the American writer Shirley Jackson (1916-65) was first published on 26 June 1948 in the New Yorker magazine. The story was initially met with anger and even a fair amount of hate mail from readers, with many cancelling their subscriptions to the magazine. What was it within this dark and terrifying story which not only unnerved so many readers, but actively seemed to repulse them?
The story tells of a village in which the three hundred inhabitants gather once every year on 27 June to undertake the ritual of the lottery. The lottery involves each household drawing a slip of paper from a black box, and one household being identified as the ‘winner’ (as it were). Then one member of that household is selected to be the village’s sacrifice for that year, with the unlucky person being stoned to death by their fellow villagers in the hope that this act will bring good crops to the village.
This is a story which invites us to confront some very difficult themes. But what are the most prominent themes of Shirley Jackson’s story? Here’s a brief introduction to some of the key aspects of this famous text.
History is full of people and whole cultures performing seemingly irrational rituals simply because ‘they’ve always done so’ for as long as they can remember. Old Man Warner embodies this blind adherence to tradition in Jackson’s story. People persist in the lottery in the name of ‘tradition’ and in the superstitious belief that the annual sacrifice has a beneficial effect on crops.
However, Shirley Jackson introduces a complication into the story in this regard. Towards the end of the narrative, as the villagers are picking up stones ready to carry out the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson, the narrator reveals that they ‘had forgotten the ritual’. They don’t
know what they have to do other than kill the chosen person who has drawn the slip with the black mark on it.
This suggests that they are not even being driven by a desire to observe tradition and ritual per se. Instead, they are driven by a mindless groupthink which has become divorced from any magical or religious ritual (or even the mere show of one), as they unquestioningly partake in the killing of another human being.
Related to this theme of tradition in the story is the similar faith in something called magical thinking, whereby people believe they can exert an almost miraculous control over the world around them if they only perform the right rituals.
To give up the lottery would, in the words of Old Man Warner, be the behaviour of ‘crazy fools’, because he is convinced that the lottery is not only beneficial but essential to the success of the village’s crops. People will die if the lottery is not drawn, because the crops will fail and people will starve as a result. It’s much better to people like Old Man Warner that one person be chosen at random (so the process is ‘fair’) and sacrificed for the collective health of the community.
‘The Lottery’ raises some difficult moral problems. If we finish reading Jackson’s story and conclude that the stoning of one villager is mere superstitious tradition and has no bearing on the outcome of that year’s crops, it is easy to dismiss the practice as pointless as well as barbaric.
But what if the villagers are right and the stoning does have some kind of positive effect on the corn? What if some god, whether the Christian God or some other, is listening and does observe, and accept, their offering of a human sacrifice?
Then we have a moral choice. Is it ever acceptable to be directly responsible for one person’s death if it saves the lives of three hundred? If the crops failed, it would mean a difficult winter for the village, and potentially many of them would die.
In this respect, we might compare Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ with the later thought experiment known as the trolley problem. In most versions of this moral problem, a train is on course to kill five people, but the bystander has the power to switch the train onto a different line where it will kill just one person.
Would you pull the switch? After all, in doing so, you would have directly saved five people from certain death. But you would also have directly killed someone.
The Nature of ‘Evil’.
This moral question leads us to another difficult question. Are the villagers evil for doing what they do to Tessie Hutchinson? Or are they good people who do something unspeakable but are convinced they are doing the right thing? And which is worse? Steven Weinberg famously observed that without religion the world would be full of good people doing things and evil people doing evil things, but for good people to do evil things, ‘that takes religion’.
We don’t need to accept this quotation wholesale to see its applicability to Jackson’s story. (Indeed, we cannot even be sure that the villagers are acting out of a ‘religious’ belief per se: the actual ritual, aside from the stoning, has long been forgotten, and the tradition appears to have been emptied of any deeper meaning it ever had.) But the core message is the same: the villagers are ordinary working people who have simply been convinced that the lottery is normal because it’s always been part of village life.
It is only when Tessie is staring death in the face that she speaks out against it. Whether she speaks out now because she only now realises how unfair the lottery is, or whether she has long had doubts about it but has been too afraid to speak out, is another interesting question. Speaking out against the mob can lead to ostracism or worse. Perhaps she has always been sceptical but has kept her doubts to herself, for a quiet life. Blind groupthink is hard to oppose, and it can also make ‘good’ people do horrific things, while continuing to think themselves good people.
Early on in ‘The Lottery’, Jackson tells us that the children of the village have recently finished their schooling for the summer, and that ‘the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them’. They are still in the habit of listening to their teacher and doing as they are told.
This is a curious detail for Jackson to include, but it subtly introduces a society in which conformity and groupthink are privileged over individual freedom of thought. Old Man Warner is very sceptical of the younger members of society who would seek to question the validity of the lottery, and is quick to counter any suggestions that the lottery might be an outdated tradition. The fact that young children are encouraged – indeed, told – to take part in the ritual sacrifice of one of their neighbours is one of the most troubling aspects of Jackson’s tale.