One of the best English classes that I’ve ever taken was in summer school, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. It was your basic, run-of-the-mill English 102 class, except for one thing: my teacher was extraordinary. He challenged his students with every story we read, and he really pushed us to dive head first into them. From Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” to Albert Camus’s The Stranger, he grounded us in a broad range of classics and contemporary literature (including my favorite short story, Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”). And one of the most memorable stories that I read that summer was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” my pick for That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for June 2009. (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
This 1948 story takes place in a medium-sized village (with a population of only three hundred people). The story begins on June 27th, when it is warm and sunny. Children run around and play in the village square, where the boys start to make a small pile of rocks. Their fathers join them in the square and make small talk as they wait for the lottery (a long-standing tradition) to start. Then the women come. And, lastly, Mr. Summers–the self-appointed civic activities director–calls the group to order. A black wooden box is brought out and placed on top of a stool where everyone can see it. The head of each family is asked to draw a slip of paper from the box and hold it without looking at it. When all the slips have been drawn, the patriarchs uncurl their fingers and inspect the paper, hoping that theirs doesn’t have the “black spot on it [made] with the heavy pencil in the coal-company office.” But one family will inevitably find the dot, and each member of that family will have to draw a slip of paper from the black box again. Whichever family member finds the dot will “win” the lottery…and we, the readers, soon discover why those boys had been stockpiling rocks all day.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most haunting stories that I’ve ever read. It isn’t scary, but it is incredibly tense. (I like to think of it as a mini-thriller.) Jackson keeps us on our toes throughout the entire story. We immediately want to know what this lottery is about. Who is it for? How do you win? What do you win? Do you even want to win? We don’t know…and we keep reading to find out. And the behavior of these villagers is so strange that we can’t help but be intrigued by them. In the second paragraph of the story, we watch young boys stuff their pockets with smooth stones and pile rocks in a corner of the village square. But why? Jackson answers most of our burning questions, but not until she’s pulled us out of our comfort zones first.
“The Lottery” is a social commentary, but the message of that commentary is up for debate. This story was written soon after World War II, so is it an allegory of the Holocaust, where the delusional villagers are the Nazis? Does it condemn any form of human-initiated population control? Or is the story simply a commentary on humanity as a whole, and how we tend to accept and adopt beliefs and traditions without questioning them or understanding their initial purpose? Is it a warning to avoid that type of society? I tend to believe that latter of the two scenarios, but the discussion is by no means over. I have reason to believe both and can find textual evidence to support both ideas.
But it is Jackson’s use of foreshadowing that illumines this haunting tale. Right away, the boys start gathering rocks for the result of the lottery. But we don’t even know what the rocks are for until the very end of the story! The detail is at first confusing, but soon forgotten. However, upon reading the story a second or subsequent time, this detail pops and is immediately clear.
And Jackson does a good job of anticipating readers’ questions about the logic and practices of this world that she’s created. I wondered why these villagers even had a lottery. Who adopted this strange tradition? But she drops in little pieces of information, such as the worn and soiled black wooden box, and uses that image and moment in the story to step back and tell us about the history of the lottery. While it doesn’t answer our questions as to the purpose of the lottery, it does satisfy our curiosity regarding the existence of this tradition in this village.
I think my favorite part of this story is when Old Man Warner (who’s participated in the lottery ceremony seventy-seven times) talks with other villagers and learns that other villages “have already quit lotteries.” I feel that this shows positive change, a progression from brainwashed watching and doing to actual thinking. The senseless and irrational lottery has lost its power and hold on a growing number of villages and its people, but its existence in this particular village proves that such ways of thinking and acting will never die. People, somewhere, will always hold onto certain beliefs or practices, whether they understand them and approve of them or not. People hate change. People hate change so much that these villagers can’t even replace their decrepit black wooden box for fear of altering the lottery ritual too much from its origins…although none of them even know how the tradition started or was originally executed. And I find this funny. Even with progress all around them, some people will never change. Some senseless traditions will never die.
But, unfortunately, people will always senselessly die at the hands of other people. Jackson was hitting on some serious universal truths here.
To read a full-text version of “The Lottery,” please click here. (Thanks to Classic Short Stories for posting this story.)