Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1950)

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SOURCE: "Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery': Comment," in Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology, edited by Robert B. Heilman, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1950, pp. 384-85.

[Heilman is an English professor and the author of several works on drama, comedy, and the humanities. In the following essay on "The Lottery," Heilman discusses how Jackson's shift "from a realistic to a symbolic technique" intensifies the shock value of the story's ending.]

Miss Jackson's story ["The Lottery"] is remarkable for the tremendous shock produced by the ending. Let us ignore the problem of meaning for the moment and see how the shock is created. In general, the method is quite easily recognized. Up to the last six paragraphs the story is written in the manner of a realistic transcript of small-town experience: the day is a special one, true, but the occasion is familiar, and for the most part the people are presented as going through a well-known routine. We see them as decent, friendly, neighborly people; in fact, most of the details could be used just as they are in a conventional picture of idyllic small-town life. Things are easily, simply told, as if in a factual chronicle (note the use of date and hour). Suddenly, in the midst of this ordinary, matter-of-fact environment, there occurs a terrifyingly cruel action, official, accepted, yet for the reader mysterious and unexplained. It is entirely out of line with all the terms of actual experience in which the story has otherwise dealt. It is as if ordinary life had suddenly ceased and were replaced, without warning, without break, and without change of scene, by some horrifying nightmare. Hence the shock, which the author has very carefully worked up to. Note how the shock is enhanced by the deadpan narrative style, which in no way suggests that anything unusual is going on.

In one sense the author has prepared for the ending. A few slight notes of nervousness, the talk about giving up the tradition, and the emotional outburst by Mrs. Hutchinson all suggest some not entirely happy outcome. Still more important in building up an unusually strong sense of expectation is the entire absence of explanation of the public ceremony. (At the end, the reader recalls the gathering of stones earlier in the story. This unobtrusive introduction of stage properties for later use exemplifies the well-made kind of construction.) But all these preparations still look forward to an outcome which will fall within the realistic framework that the author has chosen to use. Yet the ending is not realistic: it is symbolic. We may summarize the method of the story by saying that it suddenly, without notice, shifts from a realistic to a symbolic technique. This is another way of describing the shock.

Here we come to the problem of meaning. The experienced reader will recognize immediately what Miss Jackson has done: she has taken the ancient ritual of the scapegoat—the sacrificing of an individual on whom the evils of the community are ceremonially laid (by looking up "scapegoat" in Frazer's Golden Bough the student can find accounts of many such practices)—and plunged it into an otherwise realistic account of contemporary American life. What the story appears to be saying, then, is that though ancient rituals die out, the habits of mind which brought them into being persist; that we still find scapegoats and "innocent victims."

The critical question is: Does the effect of shock really serve the symbolic intention of the story? Ideally, shock should have the effect of shaking up the accustomed habits of mind and, therefore, of compelling a more...

(This entire section contains 887 words.)

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incisive observation of familiar ways of life. But shock may disturb as well as stimulate the mind and may leave the reader only feeling shaken up. The question here is whether the shock "seizes stage," so to speak, and so crowds out the revelation to which it should be secondary. It is difficult to shift from genial chatter—even with some overtones of fear—to ritual murder without leaving a sense of an unclosed gap. The risk would have been greatly lessened if atmosphere, instead of being used intentionally to emphasize the sense of the ordinary, had been used earlier in the story to introduce an element of the sinister. It would clearly have been most difficult to suggest the coexistence of the sinister and the innocuous from the start. But this would have been an ideal method, since that coexistence is really the human fact with which the story is concerned. But the story gives us the sinister after the innocuous, instead of the two simultaneously. To put it in other terms, the symbolic intention of the story could have been made clear earlier so that throughout the story we would have been seeking the symbolic level instead of being driven to look for it only retrospectively, after it has suddenly become apparent that a realistic reading will not work. (In [Kafka's] "The Hunger Artist," for instance, we have the symbolic figure—the hunger artist—as the center of attention from the start; we know immediately that the story goes beyond realism, and so we always read with an eye on the underlying meaning.) To set us immediately on the track of the symbolism would probably reduce the shock, but it might result in a more durable story.


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"The Lottery" Shirley Jackson

The following entry presents criticism on Jackson's short story "The Lottery" (1948). See also Shirley Jackson Contemporary Literary Criticism.

Jackson's fiction is noted for exploring incongruities in everyday life, and "The Lottery," perhaps her most exemplary work in this respect, examines humanity's capacity for evil within a contemporary, familiar, American setting. Noting that the story's characters, physical environment, and even its climactic action lack significant individuating detail, most critics view "The Lottery" as a modern-day parable or fable which obliquely addresses a variety of themes, including the dark side of human nature, the danger of ritualized behavior, and the potential for cruelty when the individual submits to the mass will.

Plot and Major Characters

"The Lottery" concerns an annual summer drawing held in a small unnamed American town. As the townspeople gather and wait for the ceremony to begin, some calmly piling stones together, they discuss everyday matters of work and family, behaving in ways that suggest the ordinariness of their lives and of the impending event. Tessie Hutchinson, arriving late, talks with her friend, Mrs. Delacroix, about the household chores that almost made her miss the lottery. Although everyone appears to agree that the annual lottery is important, no one seems to know when it began or what its original purpose was. As Mr. Summers reads off an alphabetical list of names, the heads of each household come forward to select a folded slip of paper from an old black wooden box. Bill Hutchinson draws the paper with the black mark on it, and people immediately begin speculating about which Hutchinson will actually "win" the drawing. Each member of Bill's family then draws a slip from the box. Tessie selects the paper with the black mark on it, and she vigorously protests the unfairness of the drawing. The townspeople refuse to listen to her, and as the story ends they begin to pelt her with the stones they have gathered.

Major Themes

The principal themes of "The Lottery" rely on the incongruous union of decency and evil in human nature. Citing James G. Frazer's anthropological study of primitive societies, The Golden Bough (1890), many critics observe that the story reflects humankind's ancient need for a scapegoat, a figure upon which it can project its most undesirable qualities, and which can be destroyed in a ritually absolving sacrifice. Unlike primitive peoples, however, the townspeople in "The Lottery"—insofar as they repre-sent contemporary Western society—should possess social, religious, and moral prohibitions against annual lethal stonings. Commentators variously argue that it is the very ritualization that makes the murder palatable to otherwise decent people; the ritual, and fulfilling its tradition, justifies and masks the brutality. As a modern parable on the dualism of human nature, "The Lottery" has been read as addressing such issues as the public's fascination with salacious and scandalizing journalism, McCarthyism, and the complicity of the general public in the victimization of minority groups, epitomized by the Holocaust of World War II.

Critical Reception

"The Lottery" was first published in The New Yorker magazine on 26 June 1948, and it generated hundreds of letters from readers, the vast majority of whom were confused as to the story's meaning. According to Lenemaja Friedman, three "main characteristics dominated the letters: bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse." Since then, critical reception has generally been very favorable, and "The Lottery" has been anthologized many times. Those critics who read the story as a traditional narrative tend to fault its surprise ending and lack of character development as unrealistic, unbelievable, and making reader identification difficult. Other commentators, however, view "The Lottery" as a modern-day parable; they argue that the elements of the story often disparaged by its critics are actually consistent with the style and structure of New Testament parables and to stories from the Old Testament. Generally, critics agree only that the story's meaning cannot be determined with exactitude. While most critics concede that it was Jackson's intention to avoid specific meaning, some cite flatly drawn characters, unrevealing dialogue, and the shocking ending as evidence of literary infertility. The majority of commentators, though, argue that the story's art lies in its provocativeness and that with its parable-like structure Jackson is able to address a variety of timeless issues with contemporary resonance, and thereby stir her readers to reflective thought and debate.

Principal Works

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The Road through the Wall (novel) 1948The Lottery; or The Adventures of James Harris (short stories) 1949Hangsaman (novel) 1951Life among the Savages (nonfiction) 1953 †The Bird's Nest (novel) 1954Witchcraft of Salem Village (juvenile fiction) 1956Raising Demons (nonfiction) 1957The Sundial (novel) 1958The Bad Children: A Play in One Act for Bad Children (drama) 1959 ‡The Haunting of Hill House (novel) 1959We Have Always Lived in the Castle (novel) 1962 §The Magic of Jackson (short stories and novels) 1966 §Come along with Me: Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures (short stories, novel, and lectures) 1968

∗This work was published as The Other Side of the Street in 1956.

†This work was published as Lizzie in 1957.

‡This novel served as the basis for the film The Haunting (1963), written by Nelson Gidding and directed by Robert Wise.

§These works were edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman.

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: "Shirley Jackson: 'The Lottery,'" in Understanding Fiction, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, second edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959, pp. 72-6.

[Brooks was one of the most influential of the "New Critics"; he espoused a critical method characterized by a close reading of texts in which an individual work is evaluated solely on the basis of its internal components. Warren was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the King's Men (1947), Promises: Poems, 1954–1956 (1957), and Now and Then: Poems, 1976–1978 (1979). In the following essay, they examine Jackson's intentions in "The Lottery," contending that it is meant to be a parable whose "fictional form actually gives point and definition to social commentary."]

The plot [of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"] is so simple that to some readers it may seem to lack sufficient complication to be interesting. The story seems to do no more than recount the drawing of lots to determine which citizen of the village shall be stoned to death. There is no conflict—at least of the kind that occurs between tangible forces—no decision to be arrived at, no choice between two goods or two evils. There is no development of plot through human struggle and effort: the issue of life and death turns upon pure chance. The suspense secured is the simplest kind possible: which unlucky person will chance determine to be the victim?

Even this suspense is largely undercut by the fact that character interest in the story is also at a minimum. We are not brought close up to any of the characters. We learn little about their inner natures. There is nothing to distinguish them from ten thousand other people and indeed it becomes clear that they represent no more than the typical inhabitants of a New England village. The author seems deliberately to have played down any distinguishing traits. The victim herself, it is made very clear, is simply the typical small-town housewife.

Yet the story makes a very powerful impact, and the handling of plot and character must finally be judged, in terms of the story's development, to be very skillful. Obviously this story, unlike "The Man Who Would Be King," and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," has been sharply titled toward theme. The reaction of most readers, as a matter of fact, tends to center on this problem: what does the story—granted its power—mean? It is not really a story about the victim, Mrs. Hutchinson. It is not literally about life in an American village, since the events portrayed are fantastic events. What then is the story "about"?

Before trying to answer the question specifically, one ought to say that this story is a kind of fable. The general flatness of characterization—the fact that the characters are all simply variants of the ordinary human being, and the fantastic nature of the plot make this rather clear. The most famous early fables, Aesop's fables, for example, give us fantastic situations in which animals are actuated by human motivations, speak like human beings, and reveal themselves as rather transparent instances of certain human types. But Aesop's fables usually express a fairly explicit comment on life which can be expressed as a moral. For example, a popular translation of the fable of the fox and the grapes concludes with the moral tag: "It is easy to despise what you cannot get."

The family resemblance of "The Lottery" to the fable is concealed in part by the fact that "The Lottery" does not end with a neat moral tag and indeed avoids focusing upon a particular meaning. This latter point, however, we shall consider a little later.

The general pattern of this story may also be said to resemble that of the parable. In a parable the idea or truth is presented by a simple narrative in which the events, persons, and the like, of the narrative are understood as being directly equivalent to terms involved in the statement of the truth. For example, let us look at the parable of the sower, in the Gospel according to Saint Mark:

Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow:

And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up.

And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth:

But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.

And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.

And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.

Later, Jesus explains and interprets the parable to his disciples:

The sower soweth the word.

And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.

And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness;

And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.

And these are they which are sown among thorns: such as heat the word.

And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.

And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.

In a parable, it is plain, characterization is reduced to a minimum: the sower is any sower. And the action is reduced to a minimum too. We need only so much of narrative as will make the point that the speaker wishes to make. But if "The Lottery" in its relative thinness of characterization and its relative simplicity of narration resembles the parable, it is obviously not a naked parable. The author has taken pains to supply a great deal of concrete detail to make us "believe" in her village, in its goings on this morning of June 27th. It is also obvious that she has preferred to give no key to her parable but to leave its meaning to our inference. One may summarize by saying that "The Lottery" is a normal piece of fiction, even if tilted over toward the fable and the parable form. Yet the comparison with these two forms may be useful in indicating the nature of the story.

What of its meaning? We had best not try to restrict the meaning to some simple dogmatic statement. The author herself has been rather careful to allow a good deal of flexibility in our interpretation of the meaning. Yet surely a general meaning does emerge. This story comments upon the all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat and to visit upon the scapegoat the cruelties that most of us seem to have dammed up within us. An example out of our own time might be the case in which some sensational happening occurs in a family—a child is kidnapped, or a youthful member of the family is implicated in a weird crime. The newspapers sometimes hound the family past all decency, and we good citizens, who support those newspapers, batten upon their misery with a cruelty that would shock us if we ever could realize what we were doing. Or to take another case, a man's patriotism is impugned quite falsely; or, whether the charge against him is false or true, let us say that his wife is completely guiltless. Yet she is "stoned" by her self-righteous neighbors who are acting, of course, out of pure virtue and fervent patriotism. These two instances are merely suggestive. Neither would answer fully to the terms of the story, but they may indicate that the issues with which the story is concerned are thoroughly live issues in our time.

But the author has been wise not to confine the meaning to any precise happening of the sort we have suggested. For evidently she is concerned with the more general psychological basis for such cruelty as a community tends to manifest. "The Lottery" makes such points as these: the cruel stoning is carried out by "decent" citizens who in many other respects show themselves kind and thoughtful. The cruel act is kept from seeming the cruel thing it is by the fact that it has been sanctioned by custom and long tradition. When Mrs. Adams remarks that "Some places have already quit lotteries," Old Man Warner says, "Nothing but trouble in that. Pack of young fools." A further point is this: human beings find it difficult to become exercised over ills not their own. Once a family group sees that the victim is not to be selected from among themselves, they proceed to observe matters with a certain callous disinterest. Moreover, even the individual members of the Hutchinson family are themselves relatively unconcerned once each discovers that he is not the victim chosen. Thus, "Nancy and Bill, Jr., opened theirs at the same time, and both beamed and laughed, turning round to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads." The French moralist Rochefoucald ruefully observed that we obtain a certain pleasure from news of misfortune to friends. There is truth in this, and our story savagely makes a related point. Only the victim protests "It isn't fair," and she makes her protest only after she has chosen a slip of paper marked with the black spot. We remember that earlier Mrs. Hutchinson had said to Mrs. Delacroix in neighborly good humor, "Clean forgot what day it was," and both had "laughed softly" together.

"The Lottery," then, deals indeed with live issues and issues relevant to our time. If we hesitate to specify a particular "point" that the story makes, it is not because the story is vague and fuzzy, but rather because its web of observations about human nature is too subtle and too complex to be stated in one or two brief maxims.

What requires a little further attention is a problem of a quite different sort: how does this story differ from a tract or a treatise on human nature? Are we actually justified in calling it a piece of fiction?

An answer to these questions might run like this: This is obviously not a tract or merely an essay. The village is made to exist for us; the characters of Old Man Warner and Mr. Summers and Mrs. Hutchinson do come alive. They are not fully developed, to be sure, and there is a sense in which even the personality of the victim is finally subservient to the "point" to be made and is not developed in its own right and for its own sake. But, as we have said, this is not a "naked parable"—and the fact that we get an impression of a real village and real people gives the sense of grim terror.

The fictional form thus justifies itself by making vivid and forceful what would otherwise have to be given prosaically and undramatically. But it does something else that is very important: it provides a special shaping of the reader's attitude toward the climactic event and toward that from which the climactic event stems. The reader's attitude has been moulded very carefully from the very beginning. Everything in the story has been devised to let us know how we are to "take" the final events in the story….

The very fact that an innocent woman is going to be stoned to death by her friends and neighbors and that this is to happen in an American small town during our own present day of enlightenment requires a special preparation. The apparently fantastic nature of the happening means that everything else in the story must be made plausible, down-to-earth, sensible, commonplace, everyday. We must be made to feel that what is happening on this June morning is perfectly credible. Making it seem credible will do two things: it will increase the sense of shock when we suddenly discover what is really going on, but it will ultimately help us to believe that what the story asserts does come to pass. In general, then, the horror of the ending is counter-balanced by the dry, even cheery, atmosphere of the scene. This contrast between the matter-of-factness and the cheery atmosphere, on one side, and the grim terror, on the other, gives us a dramatic shock. But it also indicates that the author's point in general has to do with the awful doubleness of the human spirit—a doubleness that expresses itself in the blended good neighborliness and cruelty of the community's action. The fictional form, therefore, does not simply "dress up" a specific comment on human nature. The fictional form actually gives point and definition to the social commentary.

Shirley Jackson (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "On the Morning of June 28, 1948, and 'The Lottery,'" in The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Story Fiction, edited by Ann Charters, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 1192-95.

[In the following edited version of a lecture on "The Lottery" that Jackson originally delivered in 1960 and published in Come Along with Me in 1968, she discusses public reaction to the story.]

On the morning of June 28, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. I was quite casual about it, as I recall—I opened the box, took out a couple of bills and a letter or two, talked to the postmaster for a few minutes, and left, never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic. By the next week I had had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn't speaking to me. June 28, 1948, was the day The New Yorker came out with a story of mine in it. It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.

I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning when summer seemed to have come at last, with blue skies and warm sun and no heavenly signs to warn me that my morning's work was anything but just another story. The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller—it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day's groceries—and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All I know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn't want to fuss with it. I didn't think it was perfect, but I didn't want to fuss with it. It was, I thought, a serious, straightforward story, and I was pleased and a little surprised at the ease with which it had been written; I was reasonably proud of it, and hoped that my agent would sell it to some magazine and I would have the gratification of seeing it in print.

My agent did not care for the story, but—as she said in her note at the time—her job was to sell it, not to like it. She sent it at once to The New Yorker, and about a week after the story had been written I received a telephone call from the fiction editor of The New Yorker; it was quite clear that he did not really care for the story, either, but The New Yorker was going to buy it. He asked for one change—that date mentioned in the story be changed to coincide with the date of the issue of the magazine in which the story would appear, and I said of course. He then asked, hesitantly, if I had any particular interpretation of my own for the story; Mr. Harold Ross, then the editor of The New Yorker, was not altogether sure that he understood the story, and wondered if I cared to enlarge upon its meaning. I said no. Mr. Ross, he said, thought that the story might be puzzling to some people, and in case anyone telephoned the magazine, as sometimes happened, or wrote in asking about the story, was there anything in particular I wanted them to say? No, I said, nothing in particular; it was just a story I wrote.

I had no more preparation than that. I went on picking up the mail every morning, pushing my daughter up and down the hill in her stroller, anticipating pleasurably the check from The New Yorker, and shopping for groceries. The weather stayed nice and it looked as though it was going to be a good summer. Then, on June 28, The New Yorker came out with my story.

Things began mildly enough with a note from a friend at The New Yorker: "Your story has kicked up quite a fuss around the office," he wrote. I was flattered; it's nice to think that your friends notice what you write. Later that day there was a call from one of the magazine's editors; they had had a couple of people phone in about my story, he said, and was there anything I particularly wanted him to say if there were any more calls? No, I said, nothing particular; anything he chose to say was perfectly all right with me; it was just a story.

I was further puzzled by a cryptic note from another friend: "Heard a man talking about a story of yours on the bus this morning," she wrote. "Very exciting. I wanted to tell him I knew the author, but after I heard what he was saying I decided I'd better not."

One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker," she wrote sternly; "it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?"

By mid-July I had begun to perceive that I was very lucky indeed to be safely in Vermont, where no one in our small town had ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story. Millions of people, and my mother, had taken a pronounced dislike to me.

The magazine kept no track of telephone calls, but all letters addressed to me care of the magazine were forwarded directly to me for answering, and all letter addressed to the magazine—some of them addressed to Harold Ross personally; these were the most vehement—were answered at the magazine and then the letters were sent me in great batches, along with carbons of the answers written at the magazine. I have all the letters still, and if they could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public, or the reading public of The New Yorker, or even the reading public of one issue of The New Yorker, I would stop writing now.

Judging from these letters, people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horribly afraid of being laughed at. Many of the writers were positive that The New Yorker was going to ridicule them in print, and the most cautious letters were headed, in capital letters: NOT FOR PUBLICATION or PLEASE DO NOT PRINT THIS LETTER, or, at best THIS LETTER MAY BE PUBLISHED AT YOUR USUAL RATES OF PAYMENT. Anonymous letters, of which there were a few, were destroyed. The New Yorker never published any comment of any kind about the story in the magazine, but did issue one publicity release saying that the story had received more mail than any piece of fiction they had ever published; this was after the newspapers had gotten into the act, in midsummer, with a front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle begging to know what the story meant, and a series of columns in New York and Chicago papers pointing out that New Yorker subscriptions were being canceled right and left.

Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even—in one completely mystifying transformation—made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.

Further Reading

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Kosenko, Peter. "A Marxist/Feminist Reading of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery.'" New Orleans Review 12, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 27-32.

Investigates "The Lottery" from Marxist and feminist perspectives. This essay is included in CLC-60.

Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. "The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning and Context in 'The Lottery.'" Essays in Literature XV, No. 2 (Fall 1988): 259-65.

Examines the process of the lottery and argues that its "primary social consequence involves women turning over the control of their fertility to men." This excerpt is reprinted in CLC-60.

Williams, Richard H. "A Critique of the Sampling Plan Used in Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery.'" Journal of Modern Literature 7, No. 3 (September 1979): 543-44.

Contends that there is "a flaw in the sampling plan used to select the victim" in "The Lottery." Williams also suggests "a more defensible plan."

Helen E. Nebeker (essay date March 1974)

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SOURCE: "'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force," in American Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1, March, 1974, pp. 100-07.

[In the following essay, Nebeker discusses the underlying themes in "The Lottery," focusing on the religious symbolism and anthropological elements of the story.]

Numerous critics have carefully discussed Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in terms of the scapegoat traditions of anthropology and literature, pointing out its obvious comment on the innate savagery of man lurking beneath his civilized trappings. Most acknowledge the power of the story, admitting that the psychological shock of the ritual murder in an atmosphere of modern, small-town normality cannot be easily forgotten. Nevertheless, beneath the praise of these critics frequently runs a current of uneasiness, a sense of having been defrauded in some way by the development of the story as a whole.

Virgil Scott [in Studies in Short Story, 1968], for example, writes that "… the story leaves one uneasy because of the author's use of incidental symbolism … the black box, the forgotten tuneless chant, the ritual salute—indeed the entire reconstruction of the mechanics of the lottery—fail to serve the story as they might have." Robert Heilman [in Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology, 1959] discovers similar technical difficulties. While approving the "deadpan narrative style" which screens us from the "horrifying nightmare" to come, he nevertheless believes that the unexpected shock of the ending "crowds out" the impact of Jackson's thematic revelation. He suggests that the "symbolic intention" should be evidenced earlier in the story because, while "to set us immediately on the track of the symbolism" might reduce the shock, it might, on the other hand, "result in a more durable story." [Cleanth] Brooks and [Robert Penn] Warren praise the story for its "web of observations about human nature" and the "all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat," visiting upon it "cruelties that most of us seem to have dammed up within us." But then they indicate structural weakness by asserting that Jackson has "preferred to give no key to her parable but to leave its meaning to our inference," allowing "a good deal of flexibility in our interpretation," while yet insisting that "everything in the story has been devised to let us know how we are to 'take' the final events in the story" [Understanding Fiction, 1959].

Perhaps the critical ambivalence illustrated above stems from failure to perceive that "The Lottery" really fuses two stories and themes into one fictional vehicle. The overt, easily discovered story appears in the literal facts, wherein members of a small rural town meet to determine by lot who will be the victim of the yearly savagery. At this level one feels the horror, senses clearly the "dichotomy in all human nature," the "doubleness of the human spirit" [Understanding Fiction], and recoils in horror. This narrative level produces immediate emotional impact. Only after that initial shock do disturbing questions and nuances begin to assert themselves.

It is at this secondary point that the reader begins to suspect that a second story lies beneath the first and that Miss Jackson's "symbolic intentions" are not "incidental" but, indeed, paramount. Then one discovers that the author's careful structure and consistent symbolism work to present not only a symbolic summary of man's past but a prognosis for his future which is far more devastating than the mere reminder that man has savage potential. Ultimately one finds that the ritual of the lottery, beyond providing a channel to release repressed cruelties, actually serves to generate a cruelty not rooted in man's inherent emotional needs at all. Man is not at the mercy of a murky, savage id; he is the victim of unexamined and unchanging traditions which he could easily change if he only realized their implications. Herein is horror.

The symbolic overtones which develop in this second, sub rosa story become evident as early as the fourth word of the story when the date of June 27th alerts us to the season of the summer solstice with all its overtones of ancient ritual. Carefully the scene is set—the date, the air of festivity, release, even license. The children newly freed from school play boisterously, rolling in the dust. But, ominously, Bobby Martin has already stuffed his pockets with stones and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix follow his example, eventually making a great pile of stones in the corner which they guard from the raids of other boys. By the end of just two paragraphs, Jackson has carefully indicated the season, time of ancient excess and sacrifice, and the stones, most ancient of sacrificial weapons. She has also hinted at larger meanings through name symbology. "Martin," Bobby's surname, derives from a Middle English word signifying ape or monkey. This, juxtaposed with "Harry Jones" (in all its commonness) and "Dickie Delacroix" (of-the-Cross) urges us to an awareness of the Hairy Ape within us all, veneered by a Christianity as perverted as "Delacroix," vulgarized to "Dellacroy" by the villagers. Horribly, at the end of the story, it will be Mrs. Delacroix, warm and friendly in her natural state, who will select a stone "so large she had to pick it up with both hands" and will encourage her friends to follow suit. Should this name symbology seem strained, superimposed, a little later we shall return to it and discover that every major name in the story has its special significance.

Returning to the chronology of the story, the reader sees the men gather, talking of the planting and rain (the central issues of the ancient propitiatory rites), tractors and taxes (those modern additions to the concerns of man). The men are quieter, more aware, and the patriarchal order (the oldest social group of man) is quickly evidenced as the women join their husbands and call their children to them. When Bobby Martin tries to leave the group and runs laughing to the stones, he is sharply rebuked by his serious father, who knows that this is no game. Clearly this is more than the surface "idyllic" small-town life noted by Heilman [in Modern Short Stories], the symbolic undercurrents prepare us to be drawn step by step toward the ultimate horror, where everything will fuse.

In the fourth paragraph, Mr. Summers, who ironically runs the "coal" business, arrives with the postmaster, Mr. Graves, who carries the three-legged stool and the black box. Although critics have tended to see the box as the major symbol, careful reading discloses that, while the box is referred to three times in this paragraph, the stool is emphasized four times and in such strained repetition as to be particularly obvious. Further, in the next two paragraphs it will be stressed that the box rests upon, is supported by, the three-legged stool. It would thus seem that the stool is at least as important as the box: in my opinion, it is the symbol which holds the key to Jackson's conclusive theme. In the interest of structure and coherence, this point must be developed later in the article.

Returning to the symbol of the box, its prehistoric origin is revealed in the mention of the "original wood color" showing along one side as well as in the belief that it has been constructed by the first people who settled down to make villages here (man in his original social group). The chips of wood, now discarded for slips of paper, suggest a preliterate origin. The present box has been made from pieces of the original (as though it were salvaged somehow) and is now blackened, faded, and stained (with blood perhaps). In this box symbol, Jackson certainly suggests the body of tradition—once oral but now written—which the dead hand of the past codified in religion, mores, government, and the rest of culture, and passed from generation to generation, letting it grow ever more cumbersome, meaningless, and indefensible.

Jackson does not, however, attack ritual in and of itself. She implies that, as any anthropologist knows, ritual in its origin is integral to man's concept of his universe, that it is rooted in his need to explain, even to control the forces around him. Thus, at one time the ritual, the chant, the dance were executed precisely, with deep symbolic meaning. Those chosen for sacrifice were not victims but saviors who would propitiate the gods, enticing them to bring rebirth, renewal, and thanking them with their blood. This idea explains the significance of Mrs. Delacroix's comment to Mrs. Graves that "'there's no time at all between lotteries any more'" and her reply that "'Time sure goes fast.'" To the ancients, the ritual was a highly significant time marker: summer solstice and winter solstice, light versus dark, life versus death. These modern women only verify the meaninglessness of the present rite. Later, in a similar vein, when one of the girls whispers, "'I hope it's not Nancy,'" Mr. Warner replies, "'People ain't the way they used to be,'" implying that, anciently, honor and envy were accorded those chosen to die for the common welfare. Another neat symbolic touch tied to the meaningful ritualistic slaughter of the past is suggested by the character Clyde Dunbar. He lies at home, unable to participate in this year's lottery because of his broken leg. This reminds us that in every tradition of propitiation the purity and wholeness of the sacrifice was imperative. This "unblemished lamb" concept is epitomized in the sacrifice of Christ. In view of the interweaving of these ideas, it is difficult to see only "incidental symbolism" or to overlook the immediate and consistent "symbolic intention" of the narrative.

From the symbolic development of the box, the story moves swiftly to climax. Tessie Hutchinson hurries in, having almost forgotten the lottery in her round of normal, housewifely duties. She greets Mrs. Delacroix and moves good-humoredly into the crowd. Summers consults his list, discovers that Clyde Dunbar is missing and asks who will draw for him. When Janey Dunbar replies, "'Me, I guess,'" Summers asks, "'Don't you have a grown boy to do it for you Janey?' although Mr. Summers and everyone else in the village knew the answer perfectly well" (italics added). In this seemingly innocent exchange the reader is jarred into a suspicion that the mentioned "grown boy" has been a previous victim and that his father cannot face the strain of being present, raising the question whether the breaking of his leg has been accidental or deliberate. At any rate, this loss of a son will explain the unusual encouragement given Janey by the women as she goes to draw her slip of paper, her great anxiety as she awaits results with her remaining two sons—"'I wish they'd hurry…. I wish they'd hurry'"—and her sending her older son with the news to her husband who, we may surmise, waits in agony for the outcome.

Significantly, the name Dunbar may in itself suggest that thin gray line which separates those who have been personally marked by the horror of the lottery from those who have not. If this seems to be flagrant symbol hunting, we might remember that it is Mrs. Dunbar who, at the time of the stoning, holds back as Mrs. Delacroix urges her to action. Mrs. Dunbar, with only small stones in her hands, gasping for breath, says, "'I can't run at all. You'll have to go ahead and I'll catch up.'" But we may believe that she will not. Marked by the loss of her son, she may still be a victim but she will not be a perpetrator. Herein lies the only humane hope raised in the story.

Next, because of the sequence of details, we are brought to consider that Jack Watson is another villager touched personally by the lottery. Immediately after querying Mrs. Dunbar and making a note on his list, Mr. Summers asks, "'Watson boy drawing this year?'" Note that the name Watson does not immediately succeed Dunbar; there seems to be a special quality about those whose names are checked previous to the actual lottery when the names will be called from A to Z. When Jack replies, "'Here … I'm drawing for m'mother and me,'" blinking nervously and ducking his head, the crowd responds with "'Good fellow, Jack,'" and "'Glad to see your mother's got a man to do it,'" encouraging him excessively as they do Mrs. Dunbar. Later, after the drawing, they will specifically ask, "'Is it the Dunbars?'" "'Is it the Watsons?'" Surely, at least the elder Watson—and maybe others in the family—has been a previous victim of the rite.

Now the symbolic names crowd upon us: "Old Man Warner," prototype of the prophet of doom, voice of the past, foe of change, existing from everlasting to everlasting; Old Man Warner, seventy-seven (ancient magic number of indefiniteness) years old, the oldest of them all, juxtaposed with Jack Watson, the youngest patriarch, both part of the same unchanging horror. "Steve Adams"—Adam the father of the race and Stephen the first Christian martyr. "Baxter" [Richard Baxter, 17th-century English Puritan minister, who postulated the doctrine of free grace] Martin, the eldest brother of Bobby, again suggesting primitive origins changed only superficially by even the best thought of the centuries. Tessie Hutchinson, more subtle in reference but "Hutchinson" reminiscent of early American Puritan heritage, while "Tessie," diminutive for "Theresa," derives from the Greek theizein meaning "to reap," or, if the nickname is for "Anastasia" it will translate literally "of the resurrection." What deliberate symbolic irony that Tessie should be the victim, not of hatred or malice, or primitive fear, but of the primitive ritual itself.

Now, as Tessie stands at bay and the crowd is upon her, the symbols coalesce into full revelation. "Tessie Hutchinson," end product of two thousand years of Christian thought and ritual Catholic and Puritan merged, faces her fellow citizens, all equally victims and persecutors. Mrs. "Of-the-Cross" lifts her heavy stone in response to ritual long forgotten and perverted. "Old Man Warner" fans the coals (not fires) of emotions long sublimated ritualistically revived once a year. "Mr. Adams," at once progenitor and martyr in the Judeo-Christian myth of man, stands with "Mrs. Graves"—the ultimate refuge or escape of all mankind—in the forefront of the crowd.

Now we understand the significance of the three-legged stool—as old as the tripod of the Delphic oracle, as new as the Christian trinity. For that which supports the present day box of meaningless and perverted superstition is the body of unexamined tradition or at least six thousand years of man's history. Some of these traditions (one leg of the stool if you like), are as old as the memory of man and are symbolized by the season, the ritual, the original box, the wood chips, the names of Summers, Graves, Martin, Warner (all cultures have their priesthoods!). These original, even justifiable traditions gave way to or were absorbed by later Hebraic perversions; and the narrative pursues its "scapegoat" theme in terms of the stones, the wooden box, blackened and stained, Warner the Prophet, even the Judaic name of Tessie's son, David. Thus Hebraic tradition becomes a second leg or brace for the box.

Superimposed upon this remote body of tradition is one two thousand years old in its own right. But it may be supposed the most perverted and therefore least defensible of all as a tradition of supposedly enlightened man who has freed himself from the barbarities and superstitions of the past. This Christian tradition becomes the third support for the blood-stained box and all it represents. Most of the symbols of the other periods pertain here with the addition of Delacroix, Hutchinson, Baxter and Steve.

With this last symbolic intention clearly revealed, one may understand the deeper significance of Jackson's second, below-the-surface story. More than developing a theme which "deals with 'scapegoating', the human tendency to punish 'innocent' and often accidentally chosen victims for our sins" [Scott, Studies in Short Story] or one which points out "the awful doubleness of the human spirit—a doubleness that expresses itself in blended good neighborliness and cruelty …" [Brooks and Warren, Understanding Fiction], Shirley Jackson has raised these lesser themes to one encompassing a comprehensive, compassionate, and fearful understanding of man trapped in the web spun from his own need to explain and control the incomprehensible universe around him, a need no longer answered by the web of old traditions.

Man, she says, is a victim of his unexamined and hence unchanged traditions which engender in him flames otherwise banked, subdued. Until enough men are touched strongly enough by the horror of their ritualistic, irrational actions to reject the long-perverted ritual, to destroy the box completely—or to make, if necessary, a new one reflective of their own conditions and needs of life—man will never free himself from his primitive nature and is ultimately doomed. Miss Jackson does not offer us much hope—they only talk of giving up the lottery in the north village, the Dunbars and Watsons do not actually resist, and even little Davy Hutchinson holds a few pebbles in his hands.

Lenemaja Friedman (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1929

SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in Shirley Jackson, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 44-77.

[Friedman is an English professor and critic. In the following excerpt, she briefly discusses the publication history of "The Lottery" and examines the story's theme of social evil.]

One of the ancient practices that modern man deplores as inhumanly evil is the annual sacrifice of a scapegoat or a god-figure for the benefit of the community. Throughout the ages, from ancient Rome and Greece to the more recent occurrences in African countries, sacrifices in the name of a god of vegetation were usual and necessary, the natives felt, for a fertile crop. Somewhere along the way, the sacrifice of a human for the sins of the people—to drive evil from themselves—became linked with the ritual of the vegetation god. In Mexico, among the Aztecs, the victims impersonated the particular gods for a one-year period before being put to death; death came then by the thrust of a knife into the breast and the immediate extraction of the heart. In Athens, each year in May, at the festival of the Thargelia, two victims, a man and a woman, were led out of the city and stoned to death. Death by stoning was one of the accepted and more popular methods of dispatching ceremonial victims.

But modern man considers such practices barbaric and, therefore, alien to his civilized behavior. For this reason, many persons were puzzled and shocked by "The Lottery." After its appearance in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, a flood of mail—hundreds of letters—deluged both the editorial offices in New York and the post office in Bennington. No New Yorker story had ever received such a response. Of the many letters received, as Miss Jackson recalled, only thirteen spoke kindly to her; and those were from friends. Three main characteristics dominated the letters: bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse. "The general tone of the early letters was a kind of wide-eyed shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant: what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch" [undated letter of Shirley Jackson to her mother]. Later, after the story had been anthologized, televised, and dramatized, the tone of the letters became more polite; but people still wondered what the story meant.

She had conceived the story idea, she said, on a fine June morning as she was returning from a trip to the grocery store and was pushing uphill the stroller containing her daughter and the day's groceries. Having the idea well in mind, she wrote the story so easily that the finished copy was almost the same word for word as the rough draft. Her agent, she recalls, did not care for the story; nor was the fiction editor of The New Yorker particularly impressed; however, the magazine was going to buy it. When Mr. Harold Ross, then editor of the magazine, indicated that the story might be puzzling to some people and asked if she would care to enlarge upon its meaning, she refused. But later, in response to numerous requests, she made the following statement, which appeared in the July 22 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."

Several of Miss Jackson's friends had intimated that the village characters were modeled after actual persons in Bennington; but, if so, she took pains to disguise the fact. The names are plain, solid-sounding: Adams, Warner, Dunbar, Martin, Hutchinson, etc. The name Mr. Summers is particularly suitable for sunny, jovial Joe Summers; it emphasizes the surface tone of the piece and underscores the ultimate irony. Mr. Graves—the postmaster and the assistant to Mr. Summers in the administration of the lottery—has a name that might well signify the tragic undercurrent, which does not become meaningful until the end of the story. As in the other stories designating the presence of evil even in the least likely persons, such as in sweet old ladies, the reader discovers the blight in this deceptively pleasant community. In fact, much of the horror stems from the discrepancy between the normal outward appearance of the village life and its people and the heinous act these people commit in the guise of tradition.

The story begins with a fine sunny morning, June 27 (the fiction editor had asked for a change in date, to coincide with this particular edition of The New Yorker). At first, the village appears to have a holiday atmosphere; and the reader's expectations are that the lottery is a joyous occasion, ending with a happy surprise for some lucky individual. The whole lottery, one is told, takes less than two hours, so that, if it begins at ten o'clock, the villagers will be home in time for noon dinner. Not until the truth of the lottery is revealed can the reader appreciate the chilling callousness of this business-as-usual attitude on the part of the community and the willingness of the people to accept and dismiss torture-death as a common occurrence. The gathering of the stones in one corner of the square is the part of the ceremony performed by the schoolchildren during their "boisterous play." The children, too, are guilty; they show no sensitivity or emotion about the coming event. Miss Jackson's matter-of-fact description is allied to the attitude of the townspeople, and this objectivity sustains the suspense and heightens the shock of the ending.

As the men congregate, they talk of "planting and rain, tractors and taxes." The women exchange bits of gossip. One notices the first bit of tension when the families gather together; the women, standing by their husbands, call to their children. Mr. Martin speaks sharply to Bobby when the boy runs back to the pile of stones, and Bobby comes quickly. As the black box is set down, the villagers keep their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool; and there is hesitation at Mr. Summers's call for assistance. But Miss Jackson so skillfully weaves the tension of the present with description of the past and with the history of the black box that the reader is kept carefully unaware of anything more than what, he supposes, is the normal excitement of the occasion.

Jovial Mr. Summers who, it would seem, is the epitome of civic duty, conducts the lotteries, as he also conducts the square dances, the teen-age club, and the Halloween program. The incongruity of the purpose and the seriousness of these four activities is ironic and testifies to the guilt in Mr. Summers's soul, for he is a willing leader and thus a perpetrator of the evil. His conscience is as blank as the—all but one—little slips in the little black box. He does not recognize evil or, perhaps, know right from wrong. He does not question the tradition of the lottery; instead, his token civic improvements call not for elimination of the lottery but for the substitution of slips of paper for chips of wood—for convenience and expediency.

Mr. Summers's cheerful mien belies the seriousness of the occasion. When Tessie has been chosen, and the fatal moment has come, it is Mr. Summers who says, "All right, folks…. Let's finish quickly." He shows no hesitation and no compassion. Because of his position in the community, he is the one who might successfully repudiate tradition; but he is representative of conservative elements who, though outwardly progressive, are content to retain existing though harmful customs. He is aware of the changing conditions in other villages; for, as Mr. and Mrs. Adams point out, some villages have already "quit lotteries." The Adamses are among the few progressive people who question the tradition and who implicitly suggest action, but their convictions are not strong; worse, they go along with the majority. Indeed, when the mob is upon Tessie, the hypocritical Steve Adams, ready to kill, is at the front of the group.

Old Man Warner, who miraculously has survived seventy-seven lotteries, is a frightening individual because, still completely superstitious, he wholeheartedly believes in the lottery and is convinced that the ritual is necessary for the welfare of the corn crop. He resents the amiable spirit and the jokes of Mr. Summers ("Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody"), for he senses the seriousness of the occasion and the necessity of preserving the religiosity of the ceremony. It is not the death of the victim that disturbs him but the possible consequences of an irreligious attitude on the part of the participants. To Mr. Adams, he repeats the old saw: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." Then he adds, after the comment on stopping the lottery, "First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns"—if the lottery were to be abandoned, the crops would be destroyed and man would soon be foraging for food as he did in his cavedwelling days. He does not want to go back to living in a cave, although in terms of civilization and humanity, he has never emerged from one, "There's always been a lottery," he says, and that alone, he supposes, is reason enough to continue the practice.

Tessie Hutchinson shows both the evils and the weaknesses of mankind faced with immediate death. Her hypocrisy indicates that she would willingly take part in the stoning; but, when she is the chosen sacrifice, she protests the unfairness of the method; she is not willing to be a good sport about giving up her life. "Be a good sport, Tessie," Mrs. Delacroix calls; and Mrs. Graves says, "All of us took the same chance." Instead, Tessie reacts like a frightened animal; but, unlike the animal-mother, the human mother does not always seek protection for her off-spring. In fact, instead of giving her life for her children, Tessie prefers that they take their chances also—and she tries to have her daughter Eva and her husband [Bill] included in the fatal drawing to increase her own chances for survival. The most pathetic figure of all is little Davy Hutchinson who survives the drawing but who is then forced, unknowing, to take part in the ordeal. Someone gives him a few pebbles so that he, too, may share in the collective murder of his mother; and his silence in this terrible moment is much more chilling than any other response Miss Jackson could have chosen for him.

If anything is illogical about the total ritual, it may be the stoicism of the participants and their complete willingness to sacrifice themselves or members of their families. As not all individuals are equally willing and able to endure pain, much less death, it would seem likely that during lottery time whole families might take to the woods or migrate to other villages. Even the Aztec god-figures, celebrated and worshipped until the sacrifice day, had to be guarded against escape. If the victim escaped, the captain of the guards became the substitute. But, since such practices are not literally a part of our culture, one may say that the story proceeds by way of realism to grimly realistic fantasy. As such, the lottery may be symbolic of any of a number of social ills that mankind blindly perpetrates.

Barbara Allen (essay date December 1980)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2459

SOURCE: "A Folkloristic Look at Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" in Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, December, 1980, pp. 119-24.

[In the following essay, Allen analyzes the elements of folklore and ritual in "The Lottery," contending that Jackson successfully uses them to reveal various kinds of social behavior.]

Most studies of folklore in literature fall into one of two categories. Either they are concerned with identifying specific items of folklore in works of literature, or they attempt to interpret the use of folklore as integral to the meaning of particular literary creations. Historically, folklore-in-literature research has been oriented more toward identification than interpretation; as a result, the preponderance of studies of folklore in specific literary works has focused on the stylistic uses of folklore to set a mood, to delineate a character, or to provide "local color." In spite of repeated pleas for scholars to go beyond the identification of folklore in literature to the interpretation of its use and meaning, relatively little research has been undertaken on the structural or functional use of folklore as thematic content or integral plot elements…. Furthermore, folklorists offering interpretive analyses of folklore in literature have, by and large, followed standard models of literary exegesis. That is, they have not brought their specialized training to bear on problems of interpretation. Their failure to do so seems to stem from the lack of a theoretical base for the folkloristic interpretation of folklore in literature.

In ["The Study of Folklore in Literature: An Expanded View"] published in Southern Folklore Quarterly in 1976, Mary Ellen B. Lewis attempts to fill this void, by urging scholars to consider folklore in processual terms rather than as discrete items. Specifically, Lewis argued that folklore can be analyzed on the three levels of text, context, and texture, and, therefore, that folklore can be represented in literature not just on the textual level (that is, as an item), but on the levels of situation (context) and medium (texture) as well. While the scheme which Lewis presents is intended primarily to expand the bases for the identification of folklore in literary works, it also offers a key for putting the interpretation of folklore in literature on a solid theoretical basis. If, as Lewis and others before her have contended, folklore should be viewed as behavior, as dynamic process rather than static item, then the use of folklore in literature can be examined not as the incorporation of specific items into a novel or poem, but as the literary representation or characterization of certain kinds of behavior. Taking this approach eliminates the logical inconsistency of identifying as true "items of folklore" what are actually representations or characterizations of folklore—or, more accurately, of folkloric performance or behavior.

The premise that folklore in literature is a representation of behavior is implicit in most folklore-in-literature studies, but making the notion explicit can provide objective grounds for what have previously been intuitively-based observations. Recognizing folklore in literature as a characterization of behavior rather than the behavior (or its product) itself makes it easy to account for the appearance in literature of certain items which look or sound like "folklore" but which have no analogues in published folklore collections. A character citing a proverb or telling a tall tale in a novel or short story, for example, is being represented by the author as engaging in expressive (folkloric) behavior, whether or not the particular proverb or tale being quoted in the narrative has parallels in oral tradition or is the product of the author's creative imagination. Taking this stance means that, instead of going through the sterile exercise of identifying and annotating specific folkloric items, such as traditional proverbs or tale types, in literature, we can concentrate instead on the representation of storytelling, proverb use, and other folkloric activities in literary works. This shift from an orientation toward folklore as item to a consideration of folklore as behavior frees us from the limitations of simple identification and allows us to see how an author uses folklore to create literary meaning.

In their preoccupation with the identification of folklore items in literature, scholars have failed to see that the point of using folklore in a literary work depends on the reader recognizing it as folkloric behavior. In other words, it is types of (folkloric) behavior that are being exploited in literature, not specific items of folklore. If an author considers the use of proverbs to be a traditional means of conveying social wisdom and inculcating desirable attitudes, then characters can be represented as respected authorities by having them use proverbs in interaction with others. If, on the other hand, the use of proverbs is considered to be a substitute for original thinking, then a character can be depicted as unthinking or unimaginative by representing him or her as citing them constantly. The simple identification of folklore items does not provide any clue to the nature of the behavior being characterized; it is only by looking at an author's conception of what kind of behavior is being represented in various forms of folklore that we can begin to interpret how folklore is used in literature to create meaning.

To illustrate my argument with a specific example, I offer Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" as a case in point. The discussion in the following pages shows how standard techniques for identifying folklore in this particular story yield only minimum interpretive results, and then demonstrates how an examination of Jackson's conception of the nature of the ritual she describes accounts more fully for her choice of that particular kind of behavior to carry the message of her story.

"The Lottery" is a fictional account of an annual midsummer ceremony in a contemporary community. The story opens with the residents of a village gathering for the yearly lottery, the nature of which is not disclosed. The procedures of the ceremony are performed matter-of-factly: the head of each family draws a slip of paper from an old black wooden box; then lots are drawn among the members of the family, the Hutchinsons, to whom the first lot has fallen. When the wife and mother, Tessie, draws the paper with a black spot on it, the villagers begin to pelt her with stones.

The lottery which Jackson describes in her story sounds like an atrophied form of a scapegoat ritual. Evidence to support this argument can be found by comparing details in the story with descriptions of such rituals in the Bible, Frazer's Golden Bough, and Theodor Gaster's Thespis. The term scapegoat derives from the ritual described in Leviticus 16:21-22:

… and Aaron shall lay both hands upon the head of a live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them on the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness…. The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land.

A scapegoat is more broadly defined by Frazer as:

… an animal or human being used in public ceremonies to remove the taint or impairment consequent upon sin which, for one reason or other, cannot be saddled upon a particular individual. Such a scapegoat is a means of "cleansing" a community of a collective stain which cannot be wiped out by the normal procedure of individual penitence, restitution, and reform. The execution or despatch of it is always and necessarily accompanied by a blanket public confession. [Golden Bough]

Frazer discusses four aspects of scapegoats and scapegoat rituals which are reflected in Jackson's story. First, the scapegoat provides a "visible and tangible vehicle for bearing away a community's invisible and intangible evils." Tessie Hutchinson, the victim in the lottery, fills this role for her village. Secondly, according to Frazer, "When a general clearance of evils is resorted to periodically, the interval between the celebrations of the ceremony is commonly a year, and the time of year when the ceremony takes place usually coincides with some well-marked change of season." In "The Lottery," the ritual falls on June 27, a date which closely follows the summer solstice, traditionally a significant occasion for agrarian communities such as Jackson's village. Old Man Warner's proverb, "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," makes it clear that the ceremony is associated with the success of the year's crop and, by implication, with the community's continued existence. Thirdly, Frazer continues, "This public and periodic expulsion of devils is commonly preceded or followed by a period of general license, during which the ordinary restraints of society are thrown aside." [In Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East, 1950] Gaster adds that the Hebrew scapegoat ritual, associated with the harvest, was marked by a suspension of normal activities. In Jackson's story, the ceremonial license is represented both in the children's sense of their recently gained freedom from school for the summer and in the suspension of work both at home and in the fields during the period in which the lottery takes place. Finally, Frazer notes that the scapegoat victim is often believed to be divine. Scapegoat Tessie Hutchinson's divinity seems to lie in her having been chosen, through the agency of the lottery, by some supernatural force such as fate or providence.

The process of identifying folkloric elements in this particular short story is comparatively simple, for they can be traced fairly easily to the descriptions of scapegoat rituals in published sources. But this identification does not account for the fictional aspect of the ritual—the lottery which Jackson describes has never taken place in real time and space. But, by thinking of the lottery as the representation of a kind of behavior, rather than as the replication of an actual occurrence, it is easier to understand how Jackson and other writers "create" folklore in the speech or actions of their characters by drawing upon traditional models.

A second, and perhaps more important, limitation of simply identifying folkloric elements in the story is that doing so does not explain why Jackson chose the material she did to carry the meaning of the story. By looking at the ritual she describes as a fictionalized characterization of behavior, however, we can see how her conception of the nature of that behavior and the attitude she takes toward it explain how the ritual of the lottery is an apt vehicle for the story's message.

The annual lottery, Jackson intimates, has lost all meaning for the villagers. What keeps its performance going year after year is the momentum of tradition, embodied in the character of Old Man Warner who denounces neighboring villages that have abandoned the lottery as a "pack of crazy fools." It is clear from Jackson's description that the ritual has degenerated over time, for people only vaguely remember that:

… there had been a recital of some sort …, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had been also a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching.

Even the original paraphernalia of the ritual have been lost and substitutions made:

Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded, Mr. Summers [the lottery official] had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations…. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything's being done.

The ritual of the lottery, as Jackson depicts it in her story, is clearly characterized as a survival, that is, as a model of behavior which has devolved or degenerated through time until it is virtually meaningless. Jackson consistently describes the event in devolutionary, survivalistic terms. Some parts of the ritual have been forgotten, such as the public confession of sin, presumably the predecessor of the "tuneless chant" which the official of the lottery used to perform before the ceremony began. Other aspects of the ritual, particularly physical objects, have changed in form. Frazer describes the lots used in the Purim festival as small stones; it is not difficult to imagine the replacement of the original stones with chips of wood and finally with the slips of paper used by Jackson's villagers. Still other components of the ceremony have become trivialized: the general feeling of license formerly enjoyed by the entire community is now relegated to the children; the suspension of normal activities has been abrogated to the two hours which it takes to accomplish the drawing of the lots.

In spite of the reduction of the lottery to empty ritual, the villagers cling tenaciously to it; thus, the lottery's continued existence, as presented in the story, is predicated on the idea that forms of behavior can persist through time even when their original meanings have been forgotten. Not only does our identification of the ceremony as a scapegoat ritual depend on this premise, but our recognition that the ritual is represented as a survival is crucial to an understanding of the story. The point of "The Lottery" is that blind adherence to traditional forms of behavior that have lost their original meanings and acquired no new, positive ones, can be destructive. This interpretation is not new, but in the past it seems to have been derived from implicit recognition of Jackson's conception of the behavior she describes as a survival and of the negative attitude she takes toward that behavior in this story. By making the recognition of Jackson's use of folkloric materials explicit, however, we can articulate how she uses those materials to create meaning in the story. By characterizing folklore as behavior and realizing that the use of folklore in literature is the representation of kinds of behavior, scholars can base their interpretations of folklore in literature on solid theoretical grounds rather than on intuitive feelings.

James M. Gibson (essay date March 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1679

SOURCE: "An Old Testament Analogue for 'The Lottery,'" in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, March, 1984, pp. 193-95.

[In the following essay, Gibson identifies the similarities between the biblical story of Joshua 7:10-26 and "The Lottery," contending that while the biblical story emphasizes the supernatural triumph of good over evil, Jackson's story reveals a "chillingly impersonal world of gray amorality."]

More than any other short story by Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery" has intrigued critics and provoked puzzled guesses about its enigmatic meaning. Seymour Lainoff early on invoked the "primitive annual scapegoat rite" discussed in Frazer's The Golden Bough, and Lenemaja Friedman [in her Shirley Jackson, 1975] more recently has compared the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson to the festival of the Thargelia in ancient Athens and to similar scapegoat rituals of the Aztecs in Mexico. Shyamal Bagchee [in his "Design of Darkness in Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" in Notes on Contemporary Literature, IX, December, 1979] has discovered the symbolism of "black magic and primitive pagan rituals" that expose the "hideous primitive faces" lurking under our "civilized modern masks," and Helen Nebeker [in "'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force," American Literature, XLVI, 1974] has uncovered the triple symbolism of pagan ritual, Mosaic legalism, and Christian theology in the characters' names, the sacrifice, and the three-legged stool. Richard Williams [in "A Critique of the Sampling Plan Used in Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" Journal of Modern Literature, VII, 1979] has even produced a statistical analysis complete with equations and charts to determine the mathematical fairness of the lottery and ostensibly to support Tessie's objection that "It isn't fair, it isn't right." Shirley Jackson herself steadfastly refused to explain the story either to the editors of The New Yorker or to the writers of the 450 letters that overwhelmed her own post office and the editorial offices of The New Yorker—all demanding to know what the story meant. Maintaining that "it was just a story," Jackson commented only that the story came to her in an inspirational flash.

The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller—it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day's groceries—and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. [Shirley Jackson, "Biography of a Story," in Come Along With Me, 1968]

Following Shirley Jackson's discreet silence, the search for pagan parallels and symbols both demonic and Christian has overlooked perhaps the closest analogue, if not the source, of "The Lottery": an Old Testament story found in Joshua 7. Whether or not Jackson knew the story, she did not tell, but the parallels are there, and the contrasts point up nicely the sharp antithesis between the ironic mode of the modern story and the romance mode of its earlier counterpart. The story from the Book of Joshua recounts the abortive attack on Ai immediately following the spectacular and supernatural conquest of Jericho where Joshua had given the Israelites strict instructions to set fire to everything in the city except the silver and gold and vessels of copper and iron which were to be deposited in the tabernacle treasury. When some two or three thousand Israelites later attacked Ai, they were badly beaten, and Joshua threw dust on his head, lay on the ground before the Ark of the Lord, and lamented God's desertion of his people. The story then proceeds as follows:

10 And the Lord said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore art thou thus fallen

11 upon thy face? Israel hath sinned; yea, they have even transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: yea, they have even taken of the devoted thing; and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have even put it

12 among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel cannot stand before their enemies, they turn their backs before their enemies, because they are become accursed: I will not be with you any more, except ye destroy the

13 devoted thing from among you. Up, sanctify the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves against to-morrow: for thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, There is a devoted thing in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before

14 thine enemies, until ye take away the devoted thing from among you. In the morning therefore ye shall be brought near by your tribes: and it shall be, that the tribe which the Lord taketh shall come near by families; and the family which the Lord shall take shall come near by household; and the household

15 which the Lord shall take shall come near man by man. And it shall be, that he that is taken with the devoted thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he hath: because he hath transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and because he hath wrought folly in Israel.

16 So Joshua rose up early in the morning, and brought Israel near by their

17 tribes; and the tribe of Judah was taken: and he brought near the family of Judah; and he took the family of the Zerahites: and he brought near the family

18 of the Zerahites man by man; and Zabdi was taken: and he brought near his household man by man; and Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the

19 son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken. And Joshua said unto Achan, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from

20 me. And Achan answered Joshua, and said, Of a truth I have sinned against

21 the Lord, the God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done: when I saw among the spoil a goodly Babylonish mantle, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver

22 under it. So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran unto the tent; and, behold, it

23 was hid in his tent, and the silver under it. And they took them from the midst of the tent, and brought them unto Joshua, and unto all the children of Israel;

24 and they laid them down before the Lord. And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the mantle, and wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them up unto the

25 valley of Achor [trouble]. And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones; and

26 they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones, unto this day; and the Lord turned from the fierceness of his anger. Wherefore the name of that place was called, The valley of Achor, unto this day. [Joshua 7: 10-26, Holy Bible, English Revised Version, 1885]

Although the lottery follows the same procedure in each story and the winner claims the same prize of death by stoning, the two stories do not affect the reader in the same way. Cruel as the punishment might be, the death of Achan does not grip one with the same nameless horror and dread provoked by the death of Tessie. The story world of the Book of Joshua is carefully ordered, and its moral laws are carefully defined. The reader, like the characters, knows the rules and the consequences of breaking them. The characters are sharply delineated in black and white to reinforce the clear demarcation between good and evil. The supernatural intervenes on the side of right and good in the conquest of Jericho immediately preceding the story and in the eventual destruction of Ai following this incident. More importantly, the beneficent supernatural guides the lottery, giving instructions beforehand to Joshua and singling out the wrongdoer for his just punishment.

By contrast, the ironic story world of "The Lottery" is ruled by chance and caprice. The highest authority of the story world here is the lottery itself in which one's fate is sealed by chance irrespective of merit or demerit. Although Tessie vainly appeals to a higher law of fairness and right, the story world has no moral rules, for the lottery has rendered them meaningless. Instead of lining up clearly on the side of good or evil, the characters exist in a chillingly impersonal world of gray amorality. Mr. Summers performs equally well in organizing square dances and the teenage club or in presiding over the lottery. With equal enthusiasm Mrs. Delacroix exchanges neighborly chitchat with Tessie before the lottery and urges her neighbors to hurry with their stones after the lottery. Unlike the romance hero Joshua, who overcomes with the help of the supernatural, the ironic heroine Tessie is inferior to the laws of the story world and to the other characters. She is trapped in a predicament which she did not seek and from which she cannot escape. No beneficent supernatural exists in the ironic story world to rescue Tessie, and she suffers a punishment undeserved which can only be labeled senseless, meaningless, and capricious. With due allowance for archetypal displacement, then, the two stories follow the same plot, use the same plan for the lottery, and end with the same stoning for the winner; the major difference is that Jackson has shifted her story from the romance narrative mode of the Book of Joshua to the ironic mode of "The Lottery."


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