52 Stories #17: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

photography of stones
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Happy #52Stories “Sprint Week”! (One day late, sorry–yesterday was a “day off” spent running household errands!)

We’re kicking things off with a classic from 1948–Shirley Jackson’s lighthearted and whimsical tale of ritual small-town murder.

What did I think? Let’s find out! (Does everyone have their names in the box? Good.)

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The Pitch

Townsfolk gather to find out who “wins” the yearly drawing.

The Payoff

Stories like this are tricky, because the twist is so well-known that it’s hard to approach it with fresh eyes. Even not having read the story until now (surprising, since it’s often included in high-school curricula), I was still well aware of the broad strokes of the plot, such as it is. It took a second reading to pick up on some of the subtleties and allusions Jackson works into the piece. Nevertheless, it’s a quick story that’s worth your time, so if you haven’t read this story, and somehow don’t know about the ending, definitely seek it out and enjoy.

The Takeaways

If there are any sweet souls unfamiliar with the story, I’ll go ahead and give a SPOILER WARNING from this point forward. Go read the story and then come back.

On to the barrage of bullets, like so many scattered stones!

  • Opening line: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day.” Definitely sounds different the *second* time you read the story.
  • Jackson makes a few brief allusions to the history of the Lottery–the transition of pieces of bark to strips of paper, the practice of chants or salutes, the battered old box handed down from generation to generation. There are references that those foolish young folks who want to end the Lottery would likely prefer going back to “living in caves.” In just a few sentences here and there, Jackson gives the reader a sense that this village (the location of which is merely described as south of “the northern village”) has been doing this for a long time, and that the progress of the Lottery mirrors the advancement or progress of “civilization,” such as it is in this context.
  • If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you likely would pick up on the similarities to the judgment against Achan: the community is gathered, the clan is chosen, and then the guilty party is singled out, taken away, and stoned by the community. I don’t know enough about the author to discern if this story is meant to be on some level a critique of what seems like arbitrary or cruel mob violence framed as divine judgment in the Biblical version.
  • “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The first time I read the story, I skimmed right over this line, but on second look, I realized that this is the “why” that seems shockingly absent in the rest of the story. The Lottery isn’t just a random practice of communal violence–it’s a ritual to secure a good harvest. Though the story is set in the twentieth-century American heartland, it could have easily been any other culture in millennia past. Perhaps this is a statement about the nature of human superstition being the same across time and space.
  • There is a certain sad irony that Tessie Hutchinson, late to the party, “forgetting what day it was” (perhaps as an indication of her hesitation to participate), ends up being the “winner.” Or the fact that Old Man Werner, who has defied the odds for 77 long years, is the most adamant supporter of the Lottery, and bemoans how folks have “changed” and are sometimes less enthusiastic than he’d like. One wonders how he would have reacted if he was the one to draw the black mark.
  • I first wondered if this story, published just 3 years after the end of the second World War, is meant to be a subtle examination of anti-Communist anxieties and the growing concern about a changing world. However, I think my earlier thought on the universality of human superstition and fear is more on the mark (no pun intended). Jackson isn’t writing about a mob trying to ferret out a subversive or dangerous element. It’s a story about tradition: a tradition that too many are afraid to question, even if year after year, on a bright and sunny summer day, they must put to death one of their own.  Sometimes, the darkness of men’s hearts is monster enough.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

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