Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” Through Psychoanalysis

George Bernard Shaw once said, progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. In Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, a town participates in a lottery that determines the victim of the town’s ritual stoning. Through her portrayal of the town’s residents, Jackson presents the idea that the societal pressures that stem from tradition impede progress when tradition becomes such a force of nature that rebelling against it seems unimaginable.

The villagers’ responses and attitudes towards their established community ritual are representative of the influence of the unconscious on the thoughts, actions, and behaviors of man. The attitudes the villagers bear towards the lottery reflect the influence of unconscious on the thoughts of man.

When Tessie, the chosen victim, says the lottery isn’t fair and isn’t right, she protests against the force of tradition (Jackson 7). In doing so, she injures the town’s values and diminishes its societal power and impact. The villager’s, in turn, demonstrate what Freud refers to as death-wishing, which results from the desire of the unconscious to rid ourselves of people who oppose, offend, or injure us (Drobot). Their unconscious desires eventually manifest themselves through Tessie’s stoning, where they rid themselves of someone who opposes their societal beliefs in order to reinforce their group beliefs. Through Tessie’s death, Jackson implements the influence of societal pressures on the thoughts of people and illustrates the theme of the impact of social evil on man she frequently implements into her work (Woodruff 1214). Because the ritual reflects the town’s societal values, the use of stones in the ritual reflects primal and archaic values. Freud states that tools were the first acts of civilization (Freud 30). Stones, man’s first tool, indicate that the town praises the instincts of the id, the location of drives (The OWL at Purdue).

The id belongs to the passions and houses the passions that are felt as perfectly natural at an earlier or archaic stage (Felluga). Thus, Jackson demonstrates the primal nature of tradition, reinforcing the idea that tradition stands in the way of progress. Tessie offers her daughter and son-in-law as substitutes for herself as a way to try to escape her fate. Originally eager to participate in the lottery, Tessie’s attitude towards the lottery quickly changes into desperation. Her hypocritical nature reflects the unconscious role of the ego, which is responsible for man’s ability to defend himself against painful sensations felt by him or threatening him (Freud 10). This implies that man will go against societal pressures in an effort to preserve himself, but the power of society ultimately defeats him.

When Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, hears that other towns are thinking of eliminating the tradition of the lottery, he refers to villagers of the other towns as a pack of crazy fools’ who will resort to wanting to go back to living in the caves’ (Jackson 4). Freud describes society’s movement into civilization as requiring the repression of our primitive desires (Felluga). Jackson creates irony through Old Man Warner’s statement, as the lottery enforces the primitive desires of man, yet Old Man Warner sees the removal of the lottery as primitive. Through this, Jackson indicates that progress seems inconceivable to those stuck in the ways of tradition. The villagers exhibit a primal and unconscious relationship to tradition, which reveals itself through their thoughts and societal values.

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