“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)

17May05

I was not overwhelmed by this story but I do not feel as though reading it wasted my time. I think that Jackson had an interesting premise, but the ending did not offer enough of a punch. In the beginning of the story, Jackson tried to make the lottery seem so benign that within a few paragraphs I guessed that someone was going to die at the end. Granted, I did not suspect that the townspeople would use the pile of rocks that the children gathered gleefully at the beginning of the story.

When does this story take place? The town is called a “village” and the relationships between men and women do not seem to be particularly modern. But Mr. Summers is wearing “blue jeans.” Shirley Jackson lived from 1919-1965, but elements of the story seem to pre-date this time period. So is Jackson suggesting that this story is taking place in the future perhaps? When society has regressed?

I wish that the reader had more context about the origin of the lottery. Is the lottery meant to prevent murders by allowing everyone to purge violent tendencies? Is a socially acceptable murder meant to discourage others? Or is the lottery a way to curb population growth? Or is the society in the same state as the world of Delicatessen and the only available meat comes from people? I wish the reader had more information. Even a brief description of what the village folk do with the corpse would have been helpful.

Jackson very obviously is exploring the darker aspects of tradition in this story. Traditions can be nice—I enjoy my Christmas Eve cup of milk tea with my mother even though I don’t celebrate anymore—but traditions also act as a shield against progress. I cannot think of the name of the golf course off hand, but I remember a couple of years ago the club’s major argument against letting women join their prestigious organization was that the club had been traditionally composed of men. Considering her era, I can understand why this subject might be of interest to Jackson. This story also suggests that all humans have innate tendencies toward extreme violence. Jackson insinuates that people need someone to victimize and that violence becomes easier when many people attack one.

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