Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery
Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story ‘The Lottery’ is an exploration of what it means to belong, or not belong, to a culture and set of traditions. Jackson sets the scene comfortably, describing a traditional little village from the 1920s to the 1940s, where everyone knows everyone, children play together, women and men talk in a naturally segregated manner due to the differences in their daily lives. Men, in this traditional world, hold political power. It may not be ideal for a modern reader like you or me; still, to the average reader in the late 1940s and early 1950s, fresh out of two world wars and presented with a steadily stabilizing economy, this peaceful little conservative village would be considered idyllic. And that was the point of it. Although Shirley Jackson outlines what for many of her readers would have been a perfect life, she uses it to draw sharp contrasts between our apparent civility and the barbarism of unquestioned cultural traditions.
The culture after WWII was one that Americans were proud of. We today see ourselves as a society that has surpassed racial segregation, the oppression of women and the criminalization of homosexuality. And we are proud of ourselves for this: we have achieved much and can look back and see progress. Likewise, people who lived in the aftermath of two world wars saw themselves as the proud victors against injustice. Rather than accept the new steps they had taken and look for more ways to improve, many people assumed they had achieved just the right amount of justice and power. Shirley Jackson calls this into question by designing a beautiful little village, what we now consider the 1950s ideal, where the residents believe they have achieved the ideal measure of progress, despite engaging in a tradition which would be seen as barbaric by most of Jackson’s audience. She describes natural life bursting forth from the ground on the “morning of June 27th”, “the fresh warmth of a full-summer day” in the air and flowers “blossoming profusely”. She goes on to describe people gathering in the square, in much the same way some people gather for religious celebrations or for political processes. They are quiet, maybe a little nervous, but enjoying the weather and each other’s company. A true sense of community is built in a few paragraphs before the lottery begins to take place.
The lottery itself is ambiguous; however, it inspires a sensation of wariness, of dread in most readers. This is mostly because a modern reader is aware of this horror technique. We are very familiar with the “too good to be true” trope used, where sweet little children are really horrific monsters and the nicest person is the killer. To the target audience in 1948, this story may have been a little unsettling, due to its portrayal of a custom they did not understand. However they would have been far less likely to see where the story would end up than we are today. Instead, the unease is created by xenophobia, a questioning of foreign cultures — which is exactly what Jackson intended. By making the readers consider why they are not comfortable with the town’s traditions, Jackson begins to open them up to evaluate their own customs. This is further enhanced by the dissenting voices in the audience. Throughout the story the townsfolk express wariness about the tradition, with some wondering why it ought to be done and others mentioning that many towns have stopped drawing their lotteries. And just as with any tradition, several voices uphold it. Old Man Warner rejects any questioning and dismissively says that “[p]eople ain’t the way they used to be” when he hears the village wishing that the victim of the lottery would not be a young girl.
The only character to remain strongly, actively against the lottery is Tess Hutchinson. Not only does she arrive late as she “clean forgot what day it was”, but as she sees that her family has been narrowed down by the lottery, she turns against local concepts of justice, declaring the lottery is “not fair”. Although it is easy to see that her complaints come from a perspective of preserving herself and her children, rather than from a place of true justice, it is worth noting that nobody who has not been affected opposes the lottery. In that town everyone is selfishly and blindly adhering to the tradition. Yet Tess’s selfishness does not change the fact that the lottery is, to most people’s eyes, unfair. The random selection and killing of an innocent townsperson, for whatever reason given, offended people in 1948 as much as it offends us today. But the same defenses used to support modern traditions can easily be used to support the lottery tradition as well: they have always done it, it has significance, it only affects a few people, it’s all down to luck, nobody is targeted.
In the end the reader is presented with the scene of Tess Hutchinson’s death, with is a stark reminder of what could happen if we were to always leave our traditions unquestioned. ‘The Lottery’ and its message are as pertinent today as they were in 1948. Every generation of our society believes it has overthrown the worst generation before it and that its traditions and concepts of justice and fairness are the right ones. ‘The Lottery’ shows us that no matter who we are or what we have overcome in our pasts, there may always be room for improvement. We should not leave our traditions unquestioned just because they do not hurt us personally.
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