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Shirley Jackson wrote this story in 1948. This was a time when World War II had just ended and there was growing tension between the US and the Soviet Union. I think that WWII, in particular, influenced this story.
To me, the moral of the story is that people who seem normal will do really terrible things if those things seem common to them. If their society says that something horrible is normal, they will believe it. I see this as connected very closely to the Holocaust. In the Holocaust, presumably normal Germans helped murder all those people, largely because their society seemed to think this was a normal way to act.
So I think that this story is heavily influenced by WWII and by the Holocaust in particular.
I find the 40s, particularly the late 40s to be a time when our country was recovering from separations of families and had now entered into a period of reunion. The family unit grew strong in the late 40s and if you take a look at the 50s, the family was nearly perfect. Men worked, women cleaned house, cooked, and cared for the children. Family support of country and patriotism was high. Neighbors were not just civil, but neighborly.
I think her piece was a caution. Life had just become really good for so many Americans after about 15 years of pains with WWII and the Great Depression. I think she wrote to warn that life wasn't necessarily as easy as it appeared and you never know when tragedy is going to strike, or how close it will be to you.
If you read about Jackson's other writings, they all fit this same profile, normal life with a shock of impending doom.
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" also reflects its historical context in the portrayal of how the individual can be targeted by a complacent or unthinking majority. This can involve the persecution of that individual in an active way such as in the period of the "Red Scare," which burgeoned during Jackson's time; a period that involves the targeting of various Hollywood writers and actors.The Hollywood blacklist which included some 300 witers, directors, and actors, led to the suicide of some; so, in essence, their deaths were ones of figurative stoning by a hysterical, unthinking majority much like that depicted in Jackson's story.
The targeting of individuals can also be demonstrated in the silencing of anyone who demurs against the tyranny of the "status quo" as those others in Hollywood who defended the accused were equally blackballed. This aspect of Jackson's story is particularly relevant today as anyone who contradicts "the conventional wisdom" of contemporary times is labeled, singled out, ridiculed,and often persecuted by the press or by employers.
The Holocaust as well as other examples of systematic persecution are great historical reference points for Jackson's story. I would also point to the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s. There is much in the idea of Tessie's stoning while the community either participated in or stood silently to watch to parallel to the manner in which members of the American government sought to find and punish those who were perceived to be Communists. In both the historical setting and the story's setting, one sees how the community is misguided in its targeting of specific individuals. At the same time, one sees that there are no checks against this social encroachment, a tyranny of the majority against the "select" few.
The end of World War II also marked a rise in the power of Communism and the paranoia that many Americans felt concerning its far-reaching implications. The Soviet Union had become the world's other superpower (along with the United States) following the defeat of Germany, and the USSR made no secrets about their intention to spread Communism to other parts of the globe; they annexed Czechoslavakia just three years after the end of WWII. American politicians began a policy of outting its citizens with even the most remote connections to subversive activities. The House Un-American Activities Committee was already in motion at the time of the publication of "The Lottery," and the term "Cold War" had been recently coined. Soon, Senator Joseph McCarthy would begin his Communist witch hunts and war would again break out--this time in Korea.
cruelty by people who are supposed to be civilized
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