Shirley Jacksons The Lottery1

Since the beginning of time man has had the internal drive to congregate and form relationships with others. From these relationships societies have evolved, and from the evolution characteristics of humankind have been brought forward. Certain characteristics have been cultivated as acceptable, while others are labeled as unacceptable. Learned evil has become present as a means of survival in every society. Humanity’s learned evil is represented by society’s relationships formed with one another by a common set of goals. As in the case of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, the community inherits the evil of the yearly lottery. The villagers, however, are only afraid of the unknown; to thiem, evil is whatever would happen if the lottery was not successfully carried out.

Year after year after year for as long as the villagers can remember, there has been an annual lottery, which comes from “One of the ancient practices that modern man deplores as inhumanely evil is the annual sacrifice of a scapegoat…for the benefit of the community (Friedman 63).” The “benefit” behind the lottery seems to be a ritualistic cleansing of the village from its sins. The villager chosen at random in the drawing inherits from the community all of the evils of the past year, and then is stoned to death. Although to others this practice seems barbaric, to them it is a necessary practice which must be continued from year to year. What the villagers fail to recognize is that by seeming to wash away their sins by the stoning, they are in fact doing nothing but creating sins for themselves. A. R. Coulthard states that “it the lottery is a grim…parable of the evil inherent in human nature (226).” However, humans do not act this way unless they are prompted by an outside source, and as children the villagers were taught that this is the way life worked. They accepted it first as children, then later as adults. This was not natural to the children however, the children had to be taught; they were not born with it. Little children are not brought into this world knowing right from wrong; through examples of those around them, they discover how society works. The same holds true for the villagers in “The Lottery”. Adults from the village have accepted the way the system works, and in turn have passed it along. Little children view their parents as infallible and in turn accept what is passed down to them. The children from the village have listened and almost take delight in the practice. Although they have no comprehension as to the reasons that the lottery exists, they believe in the practice. Children put faith into stories, and the lottery is an example of that. A person needs to be killed by stones every year, or something bad will happen. The bad “something” does not even need to be known by the children in order to comply, merely the threat of the bad “something”. Since it is by example that these children are taught, it is evident that evil in society is learned and not inborn.

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Given that evil is learned, then, so in turn are the practices of manifesting them. The lottery comes every year, and as Old Man Warner stated, “There’s always been a lottery (Jackson 297).” From every civilization there have been ritualistic cleansing methods similar to that in “The Lottery”. The village in discussion is an agricultural village, and in such villages the life and death cycles are in constant contemplation. In some ancient societies, it was believed that the sowing and reaping of crops represented the life cycle. Because of this, cultures began human sacrifices to imitate this cycle (Griffin 44). In order for a new fresh crop to be ready for harvest in the fall, the previous year crop must die. The rituals of human sacrifice “were usual and necessary…for a fertile crop (Friedman 63).” The continuation of this cycle every year has led the villagers to believe that this is the way it has to be. The tradition has so firmly ingrained itself into their society that they have become believers of what the see, such as the quote “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon (Jackson 297).” The villagers have cultivated this belief into their society so firmly that the very notion of giving it up seems ludicrous. It is notable that the administrator of this affair is named Mr. Summers, and his helper is Mr. Graves. This choice of names represents the life cycle completely: life from the summer sun, and death ends up in the grave. This life cycle becomes entwined in the beliefs of a society and the practices remain and are taught, although the first connotations of the practices have been lost. Over time the villagers have not any idea about exactly why they stone a fellow member of their society, but they just know that it has to be done and that it will.

When societies form, the basis for maintaining those societies is founded. The village in “The Lottery” is no different. Everybody knows his or her station in life, whether it be a farmer or mailman, and everybody accepts it. The general cold-bloodedness that each member of the community extends to everyone else is also cruelly accepted. During the lottery, any one of the members of the community could be killed. Each and every member knows this, and has known it. The acceptance of the lottery as a means of scapegoating from the time they were children has nullified the general humanity of the populace. Because every villager is aware of the possible consequences of the lottery and has accepted it, the village itself operates on a normal day to day basis, just as any other village or town would. The villagers meet each other with a casual coolness, and are almost excited as to the day’s event. The inhumanity in this is generated by the learned habits of the collected society, not by any inherent human nature.
It is interesting to note that human beings have a tendency to lean toward life instincts rather than to death instincts. The life instincts of a population have an effect that seems to indicate an inborn capacity for committing evil, although the instinct just intensifies the learned evil. By wanting to remain alive, the villagers take a “to each his own” type of stance: “…when the chips are down, everybody wants just one thing – to save his own skin (Cervo 183).” When it becomes evident to Tessie Hutchinson that her family has been chosen, and that she may be the selected one she states that “…it wasn’t fair. You didn’t give him Bill Hutchinson time enough to choose. Everybody saw that.” It is clear that the life instincts for her family and herself surfaced, even though she is quite familiar with the custom and would have agreed to it had it not the lottery chosen her. Soon it becomes necessary that Tessie’s own life instincts take over those for her family. This “reveals the fragility of the nuclear family” by demonstrating that even the closest of ties are not match for the superiority of the lottery by “which the lottery effectively divides the family into competing individuals whose survival needs are at odds with one another (Whittier 353).” After it became apparent that Tessie had indeed been chosen as the scapegoat, sympathies arose from the crowd; however, there was no question that she had to be stoned.From this point, the life instincts of the other villagers cease to be in the forefront of their thinking, and the desire to cleanse their sins becomes their prime obsession. This obsession explains how the “…ritual in its origin is integral to man’s concept of his universe, that it is rooted in his need to explain, even to control the forces around him (Nebeker 302).” By destroying what they know to be the living symbol of the evils of what could happen, they destroy all concepts of humanity and overshadow the intimate human bonds that creates and hold a society together.

As ages come and go, so does tradition. In essence, the lottery has become a tradition with its origins unknown, but the unknown results of what could happen have kept it alive. The only reason the practice has remained in use is by the desensitizing of the value of human life. “Until enough men are touched strongly enough by the horror of their ritualistic, irrational actions to reject the long-perverted ritual, to destroy the box completely – or to make, if necessary, a new one reflective of their own conditions and needs of life – man will never free himself from his primitive nature and is ultimately doomed (Nebeker 302).” For the villagers of Jackson’s “The Lottery”, the practice is almost religion. To change the practice would require the villagers to somehow step outside of their “black box” and examine their world more closely. If just one mother and one father didn’t ingrain the importance of the sacrifice into one of their children, perhaps this would allow that child to not learn what is expected, but to discover the value of life and to bring it into the village. Then a paradigm can be born.

Cervo, Nathan. “Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’”. The Explicator. 50 (1992): 183-185.

Coulthard, A.R.. “Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’”. The Explicator. 48 (1990): 226-228.

Freidman, Lenemaja. “Social Evil – ‘The Lottery’”. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne Publishers. 1975.

Griffin, Amy. “Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’”. The Explicator. 58 (1999): 44-45.

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1987.

Nebeker, Helen. “’The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force”. Contemporary Literary Criticism. 11: 302.

Whittier, Gayle. “’The Lottery’ as Misogynist Parable”. 18 (1991): 353-363.


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