Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery”

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology,

       Third Edition. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Summary of Work 
A crowd of children are gathered waiting for adults to arrive in the town square. The little boys are gathering stones into a large pile and the girls are talking quietly to one another. It is the day of the town lottery, which has been held for longer than anyone in the town can remember. A little town of only 300 people, they meet every year to hold this lottery before the summer crop. Much of the ritual has been forgotten, but it involves a big black box full of wood chips, now papers, that every household draws from. There used to be a song or ritual of choosing the person who ran the lottery, but now it is just a swearing in. As all the townspeople get there and Mr. Summers is being sworn in, Mrs. Hutchinson arrives. She nearly forgot the lottery while she was washing dishes. Roll call is taken, and others volunteer to draw for those unable to attend. Mrs. Dunbar and Mrs. Hutchinson talk about how in many towns they are talking about getting rid of the lottery, and that many have already gotten rid of it. The townspeople talk about how ludicrous that is, and say that people, especially the younger generation, have no love for tradition anymore. Every head of household draws their papers, and when they open them, it is revealed that Mr. Hutchinson has the black spot on his paper. Mrs. Hutchinson protests that everyone didn’t give her husband enough time to draw and that it isn’t fair. But the lottery director asks how many are in the household, and he takes the black spot paper from Mr. Hutchinson and a number of white papers and puts them back in the box. Each member of the family draws from the box and then they open their papers, starting with the children. Mrs. Hutchinson has the black spot on the paper. She starts screaming and protesting, but the villagers have already formed a circle around her, having grabbed rocks from the pile that the boys built, and they start throwing rocks at her to kill her.

Brief Note on Themes
This story feels like a dystopia, with the population controlled and religion and tradition maintained through ritualized killing. There is very little backstory to this short story, and that in some ways increases the questions and thrilling drama and suspense of the story. It raises questions of the value of tradition, but it also raises questions about morality and human love and care. The villagers even have Mrs. Hutchinson’s baby boy throw rocks at her to stone her to death, and all of her children and even her husband participate in the ritual with no seeming care or love or regret that they are doing so. The story seems to suggest that morals are by and large culturally determined by a group and those rituals and morals are maintained regardless of the knowledge of where they come from. Much like when new ideas come forward and people object to them but can’t tell you why, the people of the town cannot imagine a world where this ritual sacrifice does not exist, believing that it helps with crop cycles. When morals or ethics are derived from cultural group decisions, especially from many generations past, how do we judge evolution or determining what is right? Here, ritualized murder is right, as it has been in historical cultures. While we may consider it barbaric today, for some cultures it was part of life. For me, the short story has us call into consideration what it is that constitutes societal standards and social morals and rituals. It is key to knowing how and why we act as we do, as individuals, as communities. And it calls into question if there are certain morals or rules that are always right, and ones that should never be broken or deviated from. Is murder ever okay? Are family groups and love superseded by the needs of the community, or should we always stick with family and have protective instincts for them? Those seem to be the two largest questions regarding moral pillars that come to mind.

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