With respect to Shirley Jackson's story, "The Lottery," what is the original meaning of the lottery?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The origin of Shirley Jackson's story is as old as man. For, man's inhumanity to man has always been in existence; also, man's proclivity towards finding a scapegoat for his problems is also ancient.  The custom of a scapegoat goes back to ancient history in Israel when people would lead a goat away and tie it far outside their village, hoping that the evil would ride out on the back of the goat.

In Jackson's story, the lottery in which the villagers draw to see who has the black dot and will be stoned goes beyond the tradition of removing evil and bad luck from the village so that the crops will thrive.  It also bespeaks of blindness of tradition as well as the innate sadism of humans. In fact, when Jackson's story was published, while there were many who were outraged, there were also those who inquired about the name of the town where the stoning took place because they wished to travel there and watch themselves.

In her essay introducing "The Lottery," Jennifer Hicks writes that Jackson saw herself as a psychic even as a girl, envisioning, Hicks remarks, "the present in the past."  Clearly, then, Jackson perceives the ancient and innate nature of man to blame others and to enjoy doing violence to them.  This, then, is the original meaning of the lottery that is applicable to the time of the story's writing in the wake of World War II and its many atrocities as well as to the present day. Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic, who wrote about the influence of world events on Jackson's fiction, noted,

Her fierce visions of dissociations and madness, of alienation and withdrawal, of cruelty and terror, have been taken to be personal, even neurotic fantasies. Quite the reverse: They are a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the bomb."

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The Lottery

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