The Power of Story – Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

My son read “The Lottery” recently for school. And he, like most other readers of this brief and terrifying American short story by Shirley Jackson, was shaken. So I took it off my shelf recently and reread it, too. Like my son, I, too, was shaken.

Overview: The story is simple with regard to plot. A few families from an unnamed small American town are gathered at 10 a.m. on a summer morning. It is June 27th. Children, fathers, and mothers assemble but only after they have gathered stones, “the smoothest and roundest stones” they could find … to be used for … murder.

Mr. Summers (what a happy surname!) arrives in the town square. He carries a black wooden box. He sets the box down on a three-legged stool. Inside the black box are papers with families’ names on them: Warner, Summers, Graves (a sinister surname?), Adams, Anderson, Delacroix, Dunbar, Hutchinson (suggestions of the New England Salem Witch Trials?), etc.

The patriarch of each family is to draw a piece of paper from the black box. If the slip of paper has a black spot marked in it, you win the lottery. But the lottery winner does not inherit money. He/she inherits death by stoning. The fellow townspeople take up the stones they gathered earlier and then stone the lottery winner to death.

Symbols: Two symbols/images figure prominently in the story—the black box and stones. The black box is treated almost like an ark of the covenant in that it figures prominently for a particular group of believers in a particular culture. And stones (for building or for warfare?) likewise figure prominently.

Ecclesiastes 3:5 ran through my mind constantly while reading this story … “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”

Ideas: Three main ideas remain with me after reading the story again:

  • Ritualism/traditionalism
  • Hypocrisy
  • Cowardice of the crowd

Throughout the story, the characters act out the ritual and tradition of the lottery, but they don’t appear to ever question why. It just seems a matter of course. They have ostensibly “always done things this way.”

The hypocrisy theme is evidenced when the seemingly innocent Tessie is the ‘winner’ of the lottery. Earlier in the story, she orders her husband, “Get up there, Bill,” when she wanted him to draw names out of the black box. She was on board with the tradition then. A few seconds later, however, she would be the victim of the tradition.

Third, we see the nature of crowds and how easily cowards find a home therein. A sort of madness sets in; individual consciences fall away. In almost an instant, ostensibly sensible ‘good people’ are revealed to be murderers.

 Final thoughts: Jackson’s “The Lottery” is ten pages of suspense with a horrific ending. What was Jackson suggesting about the ideas I raised here? I do think she was addressing, among other things, some dangers of blind ritualism, the wickedness of hypocrisy, and that she was calling us to think about the madness of crowds.

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