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“The Lottery”

by Shirley Jackson

THE LITERARY WORK

A short story set in Vermont during the 1940s; published in 1948.

Members of a small town gather for the annual lottery, which seems like a festive event but is not. Its true purpose is revealed when Tessie Hurchinson draws the “winning” slip, and is stoned to death by her townspeople.

Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1919. She grew up in California until 1933, when her family moved to Rochester, New York. In 1934 Jackson enrolled at the University of Rochester. She soon left college and spent a year at home, where she wrote one thousand words a day. Jackson maintained such disciplined work habits for the rest of her writing career. From 1937 to 1940 she attended Syracuse University and published short fiction as well as several essays on racial prejudice and anti-Semitism. In 1940 Jackson married Stanley Edgar Hyman, an editor and literary critic. The couple raised four children in North Bennington, Vermont. Except for a two-year interlude during which the family lived in Connecticut, Jackson spent the last twenty years of her life in North Bennington, the setting for “The Lottery.”

Events in History at the Time of the Short Story

History of the lottery

The practice of the lottery dates back to ancient times. According to one Babylonian tale, the lottery was such a highly regarded means of decision-making that eventually most civic matters—social duties, disputes, division of property, and money awards—were resolved by lot. In Roman times, lotteries were festive, lavish affairs often held to bestow gifts upon banquet guests. To increase the suspense, guests sometimes had an equal chance of winning either a gold vase or six flies (Ezell, p. 2).

When some of the first colonists settled in America during the early 1600s, they brought with them from England the well-established lottery custom. The early American lotteries had many functions: they were held to entertain, to make a profit, to sell land, and to raise money for churches, schools, and new homes. But none was ever held for such a grim and brutal purpose as the lottery portrayed in Jackson’s story. In real life, for example, the Massachusetts Land Lottery of 1786 disposed of fifty townships. The President and Fellows of Harvard College bought twenty tickets and subsequently won 2,720 acres of undeveloped land in the Maine region (Ezell, p. 75).

Because of their association with gambling, betting, and other activities thought to be immoral, lotteries became illegal in the United States in 1894.

The lottery practice continued to be unlawful in America during the time in which Jackson set her story. Not until the early 1960s would American lotteries be reestablished as legal, and often state-sponsored, events.

Conformity and prosperity in the postwar years

The years following World War II, the time in which “The Lottery” takes place, were a period of economic prosperity in the United States. Fortuitous economic circumstances made America the richest, most powerful nation in the world, and many of its citizens found themselves with money to spend after years of wartime austerity.

Scientific progress and inventions that had been developed for the war effort found new applications in consumer production after the war. Plastics, petrochemicals, and synthetic materials became widely available and changed the standard of living for many Americans. Families were eager to buy such consumer goods as televisions, dishwashers, and electric stoves. Incomes rose and the G.I. bill, which funded educational programs and affordable housing loans, enabled many World War II veterans to buy homes and attend college. After years of financial hardship and the worries of war, people welcomed this period of apparent stability.

At the same time that America experienced a pull toward domestic comfort, a coinciding trend drew the public toward general social conformity. People tended to imitate those around them rather than follow their own separate paths. Encouraging this conformity was the spread of television, which broadcast the same set of images to Americans scattered through the country. Meanwhile, patriotic rhetoric dominated the public mood in politics. Fears about fascist dictatorships and communism—issues that had been highlighted by the war—induced many Americans to close ranks.

Anticommunist crusades

By 1947 staunchly pro-American sentiments were affecting U.S. politics, schools, and even entertainment. Radical ideologies—and especially that of communism, which was perceived as the greatest foreign threat at this time—were highly suspect ideas. Under President Truman’s notably repressive 1947 loyalty program, any federal employee found with so much as a book on Marxism risked being fired. Rumor, gossip, or malicious slander about a federal employee was reason enough to prompt an FBI investigation. As a result, 2,000 federal workers lost their jobs, 212 employees resigned, and countless others experienced intimidation.

Between 1946 and 1948, Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) carried out extensive investigations of the film industry, declaring that Hollywood was a hotbed of communist activity. While Hollywood certainly had its share of political radicals, and even some communists, the more pressing concern to actors, writers, directors was the chilling violation of the right of free speech that HUAC seemed to promote. Hoping to stop HUAC investigations, celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, and Orson Welles banded together to promote First Amendment free speech rights by joining an organization known as the Committee for the First Amendment. Lucille Ball read excerpts from the Bill of Rights on one radio show titled “Hollywood Fights Back.” The plan, however, backfired, as the following incident demonstrates. Actor Adolph Menjou reported to the New York Times that Hollywood was a “world center of Communism” and that a Russian invasion might happen at any time, aided by Hollywood movie stars. “COMMUNISTS TAINT THE FILM INDUSTRY” read part of the New York Times headline (Jezer P. 93).

There was little room for differences of opinion during the postwar era, although a few intellectuals, artists, and scientists tried to express divergent views. In Jackson’s story, published shortly after the end of World War II, the townspeople are swept away by the tide of conformity, and the lottery goes ahead as always. Meanwhile, despite this general pressure to conform, a few villagers quietly object.

Race prejudice and anti-Semitism

Although the country boomed with economic prosperity after the war, the nation had yet to contend with the racial prejudice and anti-Semitism within its borders. Although President Truman supported the demands made by blacks for voting and other rights, in 1948 Congress refused to pass a civil rights bill. Shirley Jackson, a college student just before this time, wrote critical essays during the 1940s objecting to racist university policies which, for example, barred black students from living in the dormitories.

Anti-Semitism, as well as race prejudice, went largely unchallenged during the postwar era. Although Nazi Germany’s Holocaust had taken the lives of 6 million European Jews, it would be several years until the first books on the issue would be published. In the 1940s the American people were only slowly beginning to learn about Nazi atrocities committed during the war. By 1943 news of the Nazi concentration camps had finally reached America. A number of Americans responded with horror and concern that communities could have stood by and silently allowed the Holocaust to occur. Jackson hints at a similar situation in her story when the townspeople are unable to fully question or prevent the brutal lottery practice. “All her life Shirley Jackson was to champion the cause of the underdog and to expose prejudice” (Friedman, p. 25), writes one authority on the author, and this was especially true of the prejudice directed against blacks and Jews.

The cult of domesticity

When soldiers returned from the war, generous military loan programs made it possible for families to buy homes and settle into comfortable, newly built suburbs. Many women left their wartime factory jobs, which were filled by the returning soldiers, to focus once again on homemaking and family concerns.

During these years, it was generally expected that women would selflessly pursue the role of mother and homemaker. Yet nurturing and domestic concerns did not entirely define the postwar woman. While many magazine articles published after the war focused on the woman’s role in the home, at least as many focused on overcoming adversity or on women’s personal achievements in the workplace. In Ebony magazine, for example, an article describing Louise Williams, mother of two and the only black mechanic at American Airlines, stated that Williams was not only “a good cook, but an even better mechanic” (Meyerowitz, p. 233). Tessie Hutchinson, a key character in Jackson’s story, defies the concept of the passive and selfless woman. To the contrary, when it becomes clear that Tessie is facing imminent death, she objects strongly and tries to increase her chance of survival. Although anyone might act in such a fashion for self-preservation, Tessie’s actions are decidedly unlike the behavior expected of the ideal wife and mother in the era. Tessie is hardly self-sacrificing. She even jeopardizes her married daughter by suggesting that she join the Hutchinson family in the final lottery drawing.

The Short Story in Focus

The plot

On a sunny morning of June 27, villagers gather at the center of town. Children play and stuff their pockets full of stones. Neighbors chat gaily, exchanging bits of gossip and talk about “planting and rain, tractors and taxes” (Jackson, “The Lottery,” p. 291). It is the day of the annual lottery. A festive atmosphere prevails, and since the lottery is to take only two hours, the villagers plan to be home in time for lunch.

Mr. Summers, a round-faced, jovial man, runs the local coal business. Childless, he has the time and energy to devote to civic matters—he conducts the village square dances, the teen club, and the Halloween program. On this day, he takes charge of drawing the lottery.

Mr. Summers arrives at the village square followed by Mr. Graves, the postmaster, who carries a three-legged stool. The stool is placed in the center of the square, and upon it is set a black box. The black box contains slips of paper, one for each family.

As Mr. Summers reads off the villagers’ family names, the head of each household approaches the black box and chooses a slip of paper. Some villagers can be heard mumbling that the lottery is old-fashioned. “They do say,” one villager informs another, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery” (“The Lottery,” p. 297).

“Pack of crazy fools,” snorts an old man in response. “There’s always been a lottery…. Used to be a saying that ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’” (“The Lottery,” p. 297).

Finally, all the names of the village families have been called and each family holds a slip of paper from the black box. There is a long, silent pause, until Mr. Summers says, “All right, fellows” (“The Lottery,” p. 298).

Each slip of paper is unfolded, and the villagers eagerly look about to find which family has picked the slip with the thick, black circle. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson begins to shout.

Bill Hutchinson tells his wife to hush, and Mr. Summers suggests they hurry to finish with the lottery on time.

Each member of the Hutchinson family approaches the black box for the second round of drawings. Mr. Graves selects five slips of paper, one for each of the Hutchinsons, and places them back in the empty box. Tessie and Bill Hutchinson and their children, Dave, Nancy, and Bill Jr. approach the box and draw out a slip of paper. Tessie pulls out the slip with the dark, heavy spot.

THE MYSTERIOUS SHIRLEY JACKSON

Shirley Jackson was highly intuitive and superstitious from the time she was a young girl. By the end of her life, Jackson owned six black cats and hundreds of books on the occult. She frequently read tarot cards and told fortunes for Bennington College fairs. Readers, disturbed by the haunting tone of Jackson’s short stories, often referred to her as a witch, a reputation that Jackson cultivated. On the other hand, Harvey Breit, a writer for the New York Times Book Review, wrote that Jackson did “indeed use a broomstick, but for household chores rather than as a means of transportation” (Breit in Hall, p. 107).

The village children reach for the stones they had gathered and the adults select stones for themselves. Tessie Hutchinson stands alone in the center of a cleared space, and as she screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (“The Lottery,” p. 302), the villagers stone her to death.

Ancient rites and contemporary evil

Thousands of years ago, in ancient cultures like those of Greece and Mexico, people believed that sacrifice was necessary to ensure a fertile crop. From the time she was a young girl, Shirley Jackson was fascinated with ancient rites and rituals such as these, particularly myths concerning the sacrifice of human life to benefit the community.

Each year in ancient Athens, as one story goes, during the annual festival called Thargelia, citizens would stone to death a man and a woman selected for this purpose. Athenians believed that the sacrifice promised fertile crops. A similar ritual sacrifice occurs in Shirley Jackson’s story—Tessie Hutchinson’s death is thought to bring prosperity to the community. This explains the village member’s remark, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

The stoning of Tessie Hutchinson in the story goes beyond superstition and myth to show how capable even “civilized” humans are of evil brutality. During World War II, Jews and other targeted groups were torn from their communities and sent to their death while the world stood by in silence. In Jackson’s story, Tessie is similarly suddenly ostracized from and killed by members of her own community. A few of the townspeople disagree with the ritual, but they merely mutter their displeasure under their breath, afraid to speak out more boldly against the practice. Not only do humans blindly perpetrate evil, the story tells us, but they are also capable of closing their eyes to and even participating in terrors that occur in their midst.

Sources

Shirley Jackson claimed that she conceived of the idea for “The Lottery” one day after buying groceries and while pushing her daughter’s stroller up a hill. By the time she arrived home, claimed Jackson, the idea was so firmly planted in her mind that she wrote the story easily, and made only a few revisions before it was published. This, in fact, is not entirely true. We know from papers left behind after Jackson’s death that “The Lottery” underwent several revisions before publication.

Although Shirley Jackson never revealed the precise source of her ideas for “The Lottery,” she gave many clues. Jackson’s fascination with ancient myth and her concerns about anti-Semitism are at the crux of her story.

One of Jackson’s favorite college courses at Syracuse University was Introduction to Folklore. In this class, Jackson read James George Frazer’s Golden Bough and Brand’s Popular Antiquities, both of which strongly emphasize the traditional rites and customs of ancient times. As one authority on Jackson notes, many of these customs were “cruel and brutal to the modern taste” (Friedman, p. 21).

The books that Jackson read in college certainly contributed to the story’s theme of sacrificial ritual. When H. W. Harrington, Jackson’s college folklore professor, wrote to congratulate Shirley on her publication of “The Lottery,” she replied that her ideas for the story had all originated in his course.

But it is also likely that concern about social prejudice and ethnic hatred also sparked the author. By the time she wrote “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson was well aware of anti-Semitism, for she had observed the isolation of Jewish families in her girlhood town of Burlingame, California. A champion of civil rights issues in her college days, she later learned about antiSemitism firsthand when she married a Jewish man in 1940.

In North Bennington, Jackson’s family became the frequent target of ridicule, prejudice, and mean-spirited actions by the townspeople. At times, said Jackson’s daughter, the author received hate mail from her neighbors: “Why don’t you stop writing this witch stuff and go away, you Jew,” read one such letter (Oppenheimer, p. 182). Neighborhood children soaped swastikas on the family’s windows and sometimes climbed on top of a nearby shed to hurl anti-Semitic curses at the Jackson household.

Jackson’s experience with anti-Semitism probably played a role in the story’s genesis; the setting of the story during the postwar years in the shadows of the recent Holocaust only increases this likelihood. In fact Jackson is known to have admitted to a friend that “The Lottery” was specifically “based on anti-Semitism and grew out of her encounters with one particularly prejudiced shopkeeper” in North Bennington (Oppenheimer, p. 130).

One columnist from the San Francisco Chronicle, who was very interested in the source of Jackson’s ideas, wrote to the author asking what inspired her to write “The Lottery.” “I suppose I hoped,” Jackson vaguely responded, “by setting a particularly brutal 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 of their own lives” (Jackson in Friedman, p. 64).

Reception

When “The Lottery” was first published as a short entry in the New Yorker, readers were shocked by the barbarity and callousness of the story’s ending. A flood of letters deluged the New Yorker and Jackson’s Vermont mailbox. Jackson commented that out of the hundreds of letters she received, only thirteen were positive. Most readers were horrified.

“I will never buy the New Yorker again,” wrote a Massachusetts reader. “I expect a personal apology from the author,” wrote another (Oppenheimer, p. 129). One reader was so badly shaken that she reportedly took days to recover from the story.

Many of these letter-writers insisted they did not understand the story; but, commented Jackson, “their emotional reaction, raw and defensive, showed that on the deepest level they understood only too well” (Jackson in Oppenheimer, p. 129). They had clearly been shaken by the story’s message about the frightening human potential for evil.

No matter how troubling readers found “The Lottery,” the story made a serious impact. A year after its magazine publication, it appeared in a collection of Jackson’s short stories, The Lottery: or the Adventures of James Harris, which was hailed by some as a work of genius and the publishing event of 1949. The title story, “The Lottery,” was often singled out as the finest of the book’s twenty-five tales.

For More Information

Ezell, John Samuel. Fortune’s Merry Wheel: The Lottery in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Hall, Joan Wylie. Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Noonday, 1991.

Jezer, Marty. The Dark Ages: Life in the United States, 1945-1960. Boston: South End, 1982.

Meyerowitz, Joanne, ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1988.

“The Lottery”by Shirley JacksonTHE LITERARY WORK A short story set in Vermont during the 1940s; published in 1948.SYNOPSIS Members of a small town gather for the annual lottery, which seems like a festive event but is not. Its true purpose is revealed when Tessie Hurchinson draws the “winning” slip, and is stoned to death by her townspeople. Source for information on “The Lottery”: Literature and Its Times dictionary.

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