The Concept of ‘The Greater Good’ in “The Lottery” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”
Written during separate times of war, Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” and Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” written in 1974, both chillingly demonstrate the concept of the scapegoat. By definition, the scapegoat often represents a person or object who is subjected to carry unwarranted blame or irrational hostility, usually to the benefit of others. The meaning of this symbol, as depicted by the two towns in these stories, lies in the belief that they must choose one person to suffer for the greater good of the people. Seeing as how Jackson wrote her story in the aftermath of World War II and Le Guin wrote hers during the final years of the Vietnam War, we can understand how this idea of conflict and suffering in a society and need to displace it has permeated into their works.
In “The Lottery,” Jackson presents a town that commits a ritualistic human sacrifice every year under the tradition of “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,”—meaning the death of a townsperson is necessary for the success of their harvest (Jackson). “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” however, presents a more hypothetical town which forces one child to live in suffering so that the rest of the people can live in harmony and bliss. While both stories make provocative commentaries on society’s need for a scapegoat to preserve the ‘greater good’, they also seem to present these concepts in two very distinctive and separate ways that make the reader question the worth of the lives of many over the life of one.
Shirley Jackson’s famous gothic short story “The Lottery” begins in a surprisingly realistic and simple way. The narrator describes a small town of “only about three hundred people” who gather on a sunny June morning to engage in what seems like an annual festival-type of activity (Jackson). The narrator in this story goes into great length to describe the townsfolk and the idea that this tradition had been conducted for many years. We get a notion of the relative age of this event when Old Man Warner refers to this lottery as the “Seventy-seventh year [he’s] been in the lottery” (Jackson). The fact that this event has been going on for so long gives us the impression that the town seems to value more conservative beliefs of tradition and ritual.
We see also how calculated the actual lottery process is as the story goes into heavy detail of how the townsfolk plan for the event, such as preparing the names of the townspeople and even where they store the lottery box. All these details seem to function as a way to make this town more realistic and support the idea that this event could really happen. In fact, when this story was first published, Jackson received letters from people who “thought that the fiction was based on fact and wanted to know the details of where, when, and to whom the events described had happened” (Bogert 45). After the lottery commences and we find out the winner, the reader is led away from realism and into a more symbolic and shocking conclusion. The conventional idea of winning the lottery is turned on its head as the chosen person, in this case Mrs. Hutchinson, is stoned to death by her friends and family. In this case, “there is only one loser, everyone else wins” (Beauchamp 201).
As Jackson’s story is presented in such a realistic manner, it truly raises the question of morality. The townspeople all seem to know and care about each other and in fact seem to have their misgivings about the lottery, as is implied by rumors of giving the ritual up and the anxiousness of the crowd “wishing they’d hurry” (Jackson). Yet they still engage in this barbaric and primitive ritual. This could be explained in a Paganistic sense where sacrifices to nature are made to keep a healthy harvest. Evidence of this in the text lies in the fact that the lottery occurs in June. As the tradition says “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” and seeing as how this is during the summer solstice, it would naturally be a concern of the town to be preparing for the upcoming harvest (Jackson). In this sense, we could see the town’s need for a scapegoat as a literal need for survival and success. However, the primitive violence of the stoning in the ritual suggests that the scapegoat is more about releasing frustrations and finding someone to blame. The town seems to be engaging in the lottery simply for the sake of tradition, leaving their participation in the event mindless and involuntary.
Some critics attribute Jackson’s motives as a way to comment on such historical atrocities as the Holocaust, McCarthyism, Japanese internment camps and even racism. Edna Bogert examines “The Lottery” in this light and suggests that “a group of ordinary of people has the ability to commit extraordinarily horrible deeds, if people in the group are unable or unwilling to think for themselves” (Bogert 47). So it seems that Jackson’s use of the scapegoat in “The Lottery” is more of a way to question the morality behind tradition and whether or not it is truly worthwhile to punish one person for the benefit of the rest.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” presents the same concept of the scapegoat but in a much more hypothetical way. This short story is written in the style of a psycho-myth which often takes place in a realistic setting that is out of any particular set time. In this theoretical town, the narrator urges the reader to participate in the story, saying the details of this town are “As you like it” and entirely up to the preferences of the reader (Le Guin). This not only forces the reader to internalize the situation and make their own choices for the details but also feel a sense of responsibility for the town’s actions. While both short stories begin with immense details regarding the town, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” actually asks the reader to question the reality of this town. At one point, the perfect bliss and delight of this town begins to seem questionable, and the narrator asks us “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No?” and then decides to bring validity to the town by adding one more distinctive detail (Le Guin). In the basement of one of the buildings there is a child being held captive. He is known by all the inhabitants of Omelas, yet is left to live in filth and suffering. This is the catch—the reality of living in a utopia. All the pleasure and delight that the town experiences “depends wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (Le Guin).
The fact that this scapegoat’s existence seems to authenticate the realism of the town certainly says something about our own society. Are our lives so tainted by underlying hatred and evil that a town without either could simply not exist? Le Guin is making the point that in the world we live in “Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting” and “To embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man” (Le Guin). This is why it is necessary in this hypothetical society to have at least one person suffer. If we know that there is some sort of hidden evil occurring under the surface, then society can revel in its own happiness and know that it is real. In this way, Le Guin’s commentary on the concept of evil for “the greater good” differs from Shirley Jackson’s. Furthermore, in this society, there are those that actually choose for themselves. There are the people who rationalize their actions as necessary for the sake of their survival or tradition, much like the town in “The Lottery.” However, there are others who see this poor child’s treatment as a question of morality. They decide whether or not to “renounce the exploitation of others” that “justifies their comfortable life” or to walk away from the town (“Ursula”). Those who choose to walk away, do so in darkness and risk living in an unknowing existence.
The motif of the scapegoat is a very appropriate way to comment on our society. Gothic literature is always about revealing the dark motives hidden under the surface and reveals society’s truest faults. As human beings, we are always willing to allow another to take blame for our own sins. Often when it comes down to it, we would choose to have them suffer if it meant we could live in a delightful existence. Both Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” present this idea of the need for one person to suffer for the “greater good” of the town. In “The Lottery,” we see how this concept has been developed by tradition, and the town’s actions are those of mere followers. They act on this tradition simply for the sake of tradition, in a very mindless and terrifyingly realistic way. In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” however, the town is willing to sacrifice the happiness of one person in order to maintain their own way of life. This is because they understand that happiness can not exist without suffering, and selfishly they prefer to let someone else be in pain. If we look at the world and the terrible actions of people, such as the Holocaust or slavery, we can see how humans have always been willing to let other suffer. Sadly, history has shown us that the scapegoat motif is not restricted to literature, and both Jackson and Le Guin’s works allow us to step outside of the story and reconsider our own sense of morality.
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