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Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
Transcript of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
A satire is a genre of literature in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule. The purpose of satire is to shame individual members and/or society itself into improving its behavior. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is to draw attention to specific issues in society.
A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm. The writer of a satirical piece often writes from the perspective of one who professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. Can you think of any satires with which you are familiar?
Symbolism in the Story
About Shirley Jackson
"The Lottery" was first published in the June 26, 1948 issue of THE NEW YORKER. Written in the same month that it was published, the story received a negative response from some readers who canceled their magazine subscription and sent Jackson hate mail throughout the summer. Most people wanted to know why Jackson would write such a story, and what she meant by it. Jackson reportedly told one friend that it was based in anti-Semitism, and another that all the characters were modeled on actual people in the North Bennington community where she lived. Eventually the fury died down and today the story is considered to be one of the most famous in American literature.
A Chilling Tale
What makes "The Lottery" so chilling is that is begins quite innocently. The villagers meet in their town square on a clear, sunny, June day. Not only is the weather nice, but the townspeople are surrounded by beautiful flowers and lush green landscaping. Before the business of the lottery commences, the children break into "boisterous play," the women gather to gossip, and the men discuss "planting, tractors, and taxes." An astute reader might find it odd that some of the boys are gathering stones, but nothing else about the story's exposition hints at a senseless and brutal ending.
The villagers in "The Lottery" are flat characters who do not change during the story. The fact that we know next to nothing about them indicates that the focus is less about the individuals and more about their community's societal values.
Mr. Graves, the village postmaster, assists Mr. Summers in his duties during the lottery. His association to a burial grave helps to reveal that the ultimate refuge or escape for man is death.
Old Man Warner, who is threatened by change, is participating in his seventy-seventh lottery and he firmly believes in following tradition. He provides an explanation as to why communities hold lotteries by saying, "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." Warner "warns" his fellow townspeople repeatedly that change will lead to disaster. When a young girl hopes that Nancy Hutchinson will be spared, Warner harrumphs, "It's not the way it used to be. People ain't the way they used to be." What does he mean?
Bobby Martin is portrayed as an ill mannered, unruly youth. He is the first boy to stuff his pockets full of stones and when the children are called to their parents' side, Bobby "ducked under his mother's grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones." Mars was the Roman God of war and the name Martin is believed to have been derived from this meaning. Bobby's father, Mr. Martin, is the town grocer and he sometimes stores the black box when it is not being used.
Anne Hutchinson was a religious dissenter whose ideas were found to be heretical by the Puritans. She was tried, found guilty, and excommunicated for her beliefs. Like her namesake, Tessie Hutchinson stands out from the rest of her community. She has forgotten about this significant ritual and arrives late, which is a serious breach of conduct. Her humorous attempt to defend her actions by citing the need to complete her housework shows that she is a free spirit, unlike the others in assembly. Like Anne Hutchinson, Tessie (in a sense) is also tried, found guilty, and punished for her actions.
Mrs. Delacroix is one of Tessie's closest friends. De La Croix is French for "of the cross" and conjures an image of self sacrifice. Ironically, Mrs. Delacroix does not appear to be suffering as her friend is selected to die. In fact, she tells Tessie to "be a good sport" after the first drawing, and then selects "a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands," while telling Mrs. Dunbar to "Come on. Hurry up." Is Mrs. Delacroix caught up in the ritual excitement of killing someone, or has she selected the biggest stone as a way to end her friend's life quickly in a mercy killing?
Clyde Dunbar is the only villager who doesn't attend the drawing because he has a broken leg.
The Watson boy is told to draw for his family. We are not told what happened to his father. Could Mr. Watson have been the previous year's victim?
Like Adam and Eve, the biblical first people, Mr. and Mrs. Adams seem to be the only villagers to question the logic behind maintaining the lottery system. Both bring up the fact that other communities have stopped the practice all together.
The switch from paper ballots to stones represents the community's change from civility to brutality, as each person in the village becomes an unrepentant murderer. Parents turn on their children (ex: when Tessie suggests that her married daughter be included with her family to lesson her own odds of being selected); husbands turn on their wives (ex: when Bill holds up his paper to indicate that Tessie has been chosen); and children turn on their parents (ex: when Nancy and Bill Jr are relieved that their ballot is unmarked, and when little Davy is given pebbles to throw at his own mother).
The black box is at the heart of the ritual. It is a religious relic that represents tradition. We are told that although the box itself is falling apart, the townspeople cling to it, and are loathe to replace it (in much the same way that they do not want to give up the lottery). Humans often keep their darkest thoughts locked away in their minds. The black box could then symbolize the human psyche, and explain why the townspeople's motive for continuing the ritual killings is incomprehensible to the reader.
The black box
The paper ballots represent the citizens of this village. Both the paper and the people initially seem harmless. The villagers themselves appear to be quite neighborly, and initially, their lottery seems to be as benevolent as they are. But in fact, the people are not nice at all. Their community designates one individual who will be isolated and then commences to murder him or her. The "mob mentality" used to murder one of their own draws the people of this tiny community together against a common enemy, and provides a sense of unity among the survivors.
In response to questions about the "meaning" of the story, Shirley Jackson wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 22, 1948):
"Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."
Can you think of some recent examples of pointless violence or examples of people acting inhumanely?
History of the Times
"The Lottery" was written just three years after the Second World War ended. World War II was a global war that lasted from 1939-1945. The most wide-spread war in history, it directly involved more than 1 million people from over 30 countries. It was also the most deadliest conflict in human history with over 60 million people dying as a direct result of the war (11 million of whom were Jews killed during the Holocaust.)