Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery: Horrifically Significant.

Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

I would suggest that one will always remember the first time they read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. The first time I read this text I was in secondary school, in English class and I remember getting to the end and feeling a pit in my stomach. I was intrigued, I wanted to know more, and I was shocked. That is something that stands out to me when I think about stories that I’ve read throughout the years. I was also a drama student, so I have come across so many scripts, short stories, excerpts etc., throughout the years so the fact that I still remember to this day how shocked I felt when I read The Lottery really demonstrates just how impactful this text is. 

Clearly I was not the only person that this text had an impact upon. The Lottery was first published in The New Yorker in 1948 and it is safe to say that this story caused ripples in the water. The New Yorker received letter after letter after letter from members of the public, demanding explanations about the story and what it meant. 

The Lottery has been called one of the most famous American short stories in literary history. 

Fair warning – There will be spoilers in this review.

The Lottery is a short story about a seemingly idyllic town. Set in June, on a warm and sunny day, the townspeople are gathering for the annual event – the lottery. Adults and children gather and play and chat happily before the event begins. When it is time for the lottery to take place, everyone in town separates from the merriment to stand with their family members. One by one the head of each household takes a slip from the old, falling apart yet unnervingly unwavering, big black box. 

Jackson has written the story in an objective third person point of view. When a story is told through an objective third person point of view, it is slightly different compared to when a story is told through a limited third person point of view. Usually when a story is written in the third person, the narrator exists outside of the story and this means that the omniscient narrator can enter a character’s head and allow readers to access a character’s thoughts. When we can access a character’s thoughts, we can read about how a character feels. When a story is told through an objective third person point of view, the point of view remains neutral and relays events to readers almost like a camera that is filming the goings on in the story. An objective third person point of view remains neutral, this point of view does not enter a character’s head, so readers cannot access their thoughts, and so it is harder to discern how a character is feeling. An easy way to think about the objective third person point of view is to think of it like a report. The facts are relayed, but emotions and motivations behind those facts are not. 

I would say that the main character is Tessie Hutchinson, but the objective third person point of view does not allow readers to get to know Tessie. As a a matter of fact, readers are not allowed into the thoughts of any character so I think that while Tessie becomes the focal point, we as readers, are somewhat detached to her. This is an important thing to note in my opinion, because the more I read this story, the more I think that this detachment to Tessie is very intentional. I think that is exactly the point. 

If you have not read the lottery by now, this is the part of the review where I spoil the ending. I am going to discuss the ending as I cannot discuss the themes of this story without revealing how it ends. 

As I said above, the lottery begins when the head of each household picks a slip of paper from a big black box. Tessie’s husband takes a slip, just like everyone else. Every slip in the box is blank, all except one. One slip has a black dot on it, this is the slip that Tessie’s husband Bill has taken from the box. The Hutchinson family is singled out. Tessie protests. It is not fair, she says. Her husband was rushed through picking his slip, she moans. She is ignored. There are five family members in the Hutchinson family. Tessie, Bill, and their three children. So five slips are put in a box. All are blank, except one. One slip has a black dot. Bill takes a slip. Blank. The three children take a slip one by one. Blank, blank, blank. Tessie takes her slip. The slip with the black dot. Tessie has won the lottery – that is what I thought when I first read this story, Tessie’s won, but something is wrong. Something is off. 

Tessie has not won the lottery. Tessie has not won anything. Tessie has lost her life. 

Tessie begins to protest again, she shouts and screams that it isn’t fair, it isn’t right. 

Everyone else in village starts to collect stones, all while Tessie continues to protest. Her cries about injustice are ignored as Tessie is stoned to death. 

Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery has been called a masterpiece, and I have to say that I would agree with this assessment. 

This is a story that is unbelievably unsettling and upsetting, and it is very easy to see why this caused outrage when it was first published. 

This is the kind of story that makes people deeply uncomfortable, it is the kind of story that is thought of as being too horrible to write. That is what makes it so important, that is what makes it so brilliant. It is a dark piece, that is undeniable, but the horrors that exist in this text, and what those horrors represent and prompt one to think about are why this story is a crucial read. 

I believe that everyone should read The Lottery once in their lives. It should be a text that is taught, analysed and discussed because I think that while it was published in 1948, the story remains historically, culturally, and socially relevant and significant. 

Let’s talk about the themes of the story and their importance, alongside the story’s setting and how the story’s setting allows those themes to have such a memorable impact. 

I would call this story a suburban gothic. The story is set in an idyllic, suburban, American town. The exact place is not specified, but I think that adds to the idea that this could be any town USA. The story is set in June. It is summer, it is a warm, sunny day. Children are playing. It is the picture of suburbia …until it isn’t. The setting is significant. It seems unbelievable that such a horrific act could take place in a place that seemed so lovely and safe. That is the point, that violence, and horrific, unjust acts can take place anywhere, and sometimes the place that looks the prettiest can be home to some of the most awful acts. In my opinion, this is an important idea to discuss. Often, it can be argued that people think that certain places are dangerous, and it is easy to place where we live on a pedestal. It is easy to be naive and say “well things like that don’t happen here, bad things like that would never happen where I live.”, but this is very often not true. The Lottery is a story that highlights how ordinary and usually kind, reasonable people can act cruelly and allow cruelty to occur and this cruelty is allowed to occur in their safe, idyllic town. 

It is very easy to act as though one is above violence, but it is important to be aware of and ensure that, actually, we are not complicit in any violence.

I would suggest that the main themes of this story are the ideas of the danger of blindly following traditions, mob mentality, and hypocrisy. 

The lottery is an event that happens every year. It is an event that has been allowed to happen every year. Why? Well, the event is held because of the superstition that the lottery will lead to a good harvest, so there is this idea being put forward that a sacrifice will lead to prospering. This superstition rationalises the killing of one person, because this death leads to a good harvest, which is good for everyone else in the town. The townspeople need a good harvest. In this warped event, motivated by superstition and tradition, one could find a twisted sense of fairness. This twisted sense of fairness is almost symbolised in the narration. The story is told objectively, through the third person, there are no emotions involved. The event is presented matter of factly, and the idea that comes across is that the townspeople think that choosing someone at random through a lottery is the fairest way to decide who will die for the harvest, however readers are more likely to agree with Tessie. This is not right. This is not fair. This is wrong, this is shocking, this is unjust. 

The lottery is an event that has been unquestioned for so long that the big black box that the slips are put in is old and battered. This implies that perhaps it is time to end the event, as when the lottery first started, it was wood chips not paper in the box, but now the town has grown so much that the wood would no longer fit as there has to be enough for every family member to pick one. There is talk about other towns and about how other towns have stopped doing the lottery, but in Jackson’s story, the town is committed to the lottery because “there’s always been a lottery.” 

I would say that this story is pretty clearly presenting the message that clinging to traditions of old can be reductive and sometimes downright dangerous. While it is important to remember the past, it is crucial that society always moves with the times, and sometimes clinging on to something just because “it has always been done” does more harm than good. Sometimes we simply need to say enough is enough and stop doing something that no longer works – although when it comes to a story like Jackson’s, I can’t help but wonder if the point was to make readers question if this lottery was ever really fair in the first place. I would think not. 

The mob mentality aspect of the story is really interesting. The story highlights how the status quo is maintained, and often it is maintained simply because no-one stands up to it. Tessie protested, but her voice was quickly drowned out, and the story makes one think about how people act when they are surrounded by people who are doing the same thing. It is the echo-chamber effect. When you have an opinion that you know is a popular one, it is easier to share that opinion knowing that you will be agreed with. It is easier to shut down change, when it is clear that there are more people that are unwilling to change than those who are, and this is where mob mentality becomes dangerous. If more people are unwilling to change, unfortunately dangerous things continue to carry on. A horrifying, yet significant aspect of this story is the fact that Tessie’s husband Bill and their children participate in the stoning of Tessie. This is an absolutely awful thing, and it is horrible to think about, but it does demonstrate how people will go along with the status quo even if doing so harms someone they love. It is perhaps one of the harshest literary metaphors I’ve come across, but the point the story makes is clear. 

It is practically impossible to read The Lottery without thinking about hypocrisy. 

I’m going to say the setting is hypocritical because in a story like this, the setting is just as much of a character as anyone else, and small towns that preach good values are the perfect backdrop to a story about hypocrisy. The town is idyllic, the town is lovely, the town is safe and the people are good. How can the town be idyllic if a horrific event takes place year after year after year? 

How can the people be kind if they allow someone to be killed year after year after year? 

The town is not idyllic. The people have simply justified extreme violence because it suited them to do so. Tessie is this year’s victim of the lottery, but Tessie is also a hypocrite. 

Tessie arrives late to the lottery, she claims she forgot it was taking place that day. This highlights how nonchalant she has become about this event. The fact that she is a married mother implies that she has lived through the lottery every year up until this one. Tessie does not protest until Bill picks the slip with the black dot and even then she does not protest about the lottery, she simply complains that Bill was rushed when picking his slip. This implies that had someone else gotten the black dotted slip, she would not have said a word. She would have participated in the lottery, just like she has done every year until this one, but now she is protesting because it is her family that is in danger. Suddenly the lottery effects her and her family. I would suggest that Tessie is a very symbolic character as she represents a much larger societal issue. Tessie represents the fact that so many people do not care about injustice and are happy to let it continue until it impacts them or someone they love. When it impacts them or someone they love, suddenly it is not okay and that is hypocrisy at its finest – to say it is okay for others to suffer, but not for me. 

Is it any wonder that this story caused outrage in 1948? I bet it still causes outrage today as many, many people do not like it when societal flaws and hypocrisy are pointed out. 

We must point them out, this story is an extreme, horror filled example of why social flaws must be discussed, of why societal norms must be challenged if they are harmfully outdated, and why we must be always aware of violence and injustice, so that we can put a stop to it, rather than be complicit in it. 

Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is perhaps one of the most frightening kinds of horror story, because so many of the themes in the story can be applied to real life. The story is extremely evocative, it is so well written. It builds, and builds until the horrible picture unfolds completely. It is jarring, it is mysterious, it is very unsettling, very scary, and the more I think about it, it is upsetting. 

That is why it is brilliant. The fact that is it so horrifically evocative is what makes it such a significant read. 

If you have not read The Lottery, you must and if you have read it, tell me do you remember the first time you read it and how you felt when you did? Please let me know because I’d love to read other people’s reaction to this story. 

Kate xo. 

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