Writers Reading: Halloween Edition: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (c) 2005 Farrar, Straus and Giroux (c) 2005

“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin.”

Leviticus 24:14-15 KJV

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (c) 2005

It may be difficult for a millennial to understand the knee-jerk disgust to the first reading of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson published in the New Yorker on June 26th, 1948.  Compared to the dark recesses of the Internet rife with beheading videos and revenge porn, “The Lottery”, absent of violence–save one line–and devoid of a character or entity composed of incarnate evil, appears to be rather staid and tame for our corrupted generation.

(I suggest if anyone hasn’t read this story to stop here and check it out)

Yet many readers cancelled their subscriptions and sent Shirley Jackson a barrage of hate mail accusing her of corrupting the youth by being shocking and gloomy–similar to the outrage over seeing Janet Jackson’s nipple but not as belletristic.

Such a harsh accusation is often the universal reaction to works of genius. Whether it’s Socrates sentenced to death for corrupting the youth and blaspheming the gods or George Carlin’s stand-up being broadcast over the radio in reach of young, innocent ears. Check out a list of novels banned in the U.S., and you’ll find it’s a renowned collection of the finest literature ever written, only censored and condemned for obscenity and as a threat to public well-being.

Even the good old powerful God forbade Adam and Eve from the Tree of Knowledge–a wonderful lesson for every reader: paradise is reserved only for the lobotomized.

But unlike “The Lottery”, it’s easy to pinpoint the lascivious or blasphemous elements in once banned works like Lolita or Ulysses that would frighten a mouth-breathing philistine. Trying to locate an equivalent element in “The Lottery” is much harder than in, say, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.

The text does not resort to smearing blood on its face or waiting behind a corner to frighten us. It unlocks a deeper horror residing within us that many would rather ignore than uncover, and, in this case, incites an angry disavowal of the text; or what Sigmund Freud would describe as uncanny: “…that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”

The torment of “The Lottery” is in the story’s oscillation between the familiar and the uncertain. The familiar is located in the setting: a farming town with a school, a post office, a grocery store, and a bank. Children have just left school and gathered in the square already collecting stones for the lottery. The villagers are married with kids and jobs just like any average person.

The uncertain is located in the ritual; the special day for the villagers to gather. Jackson calls it a ritual in the text, a term derived from the Latin ritualis to ritus with its religious connotations, however no religion is ever mentioned. A correlation is established between the ritual and the harvest like Old Man Warner saying, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”  Or even in the opening paragraph where the narrator describes, “flowers blossoming profusely” and “grass was richly green” when most of the telling adjectives or modifiers seem reserved only for describing the black box and the character’s interactions during the vote. The setting is left to be described with plain nouns that only reveal a bare frame for the action.

The lottery is compared to banal events like teenage square dances and the Halloween program. Setting our mind at ease when, in the next paragraph, a boy is asked to help lift the black box and he hesitates. This small detail undermines our ease and always jolts me. We’re told the ritual has loosened up over the years, and even Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson arrives late admitting she had forgotten what day it was. After being playfully admonished by her husband, she replies, “Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe?”

It seems painfully obvious after several readings of this short story that Mrs. Hutchinson has to be the one to die. Tessie provides a modicum of normalcy. She’s sarcastic, funny, and a tad irreverent. It deludes the reader into thinking the ritual is perfunctory. In fact, we learn young people in other towns and villages have already abandoned the lottery.  Adding to Tessie’s irreverence and blasphemous attitude, she is the only woman with any degree of autonomy, unlike Mrs. Delacroix, or other women whose vote are cast by men.

Going further with this feminist reading, Tessie is the only woman who actually embodies some degree of independence from her husband who, during the course of the lottery, tries to silence her, and symbolically yanks the fate-sealing ostracon from her hands before she’s stoned to death, screaming that the lottery wasn’t fair.

Of course the standard reading of “The Lottery” focuses on the allusions to Christianity and mass conformity. After years of rereading, I’m always horrified by the villager’s apathy. No matter how many times I read it the same details rattle me: the child reaching into the black box; Mrs. Delacroix walking towards Tessie carrying a stone so large she has to use both hands; or her son, Davy, grabbing pebbles to hurl at his mother.

Shirley Jackson is an artist of the highest order for her adroit portrayal of an apathy that I fall victim to; an apathy that’s easier to repress than attempt to excise. Who amongst us doesn’t fall into the same purview? I don’t feel the need to explain or detail the apparent apathy alive in our culture that acquiesces to so much meaningless death. But perhaps we’ve finally located the obscene element that initially incensed the public, the true horror that frightens us:

We are the ones holding the stones.

The Lottery


Shirley Jackson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

March 2005 

320 pages