By: Shirley Jackson
Find the audio for this story at my YouTube Channel: HERE
Download the transcript in PDF format: The Lottery
On a warm summer day, villagers gather in a town square to participate in a lottery. The village is small with about 300 residents, and they are in an excited but anxious mood. We learn that this is an annual event and that some surrounding towns are thinking about abandoning the lottery. Mrs. Tess Hutchinson makes an undramatic entrance and chats briefly with Mrs. Delacroix, her friend.
The night before, Mr. Summers, a town leader who officiates the lottery, had made paper slips listing all the families with the help of Mr. Graves. The slips were stored overnight in a black box at the coal company. In past years, the ballot box has been stored at a number of other locations around the town.
The villagers start to gather at 10a.m. so that they can finish in time for lunch. Children busy themselves collecting stones. This is one of those odd details that will later emerge loaded with meaning. This activity continues until the proceedings get underway and they are called together by their parents.
Mr. Summers works down the list of families, summoning the head man of each household. A male sixteen years or older comes forward and draws a slip of paper. When every family has a slip of paper, Mr. Summers has everyone look at the slip, and we discover that Bill Hutchinson has drawn the one slip with a black spot. It’s his family that has been chosen. Mrs. Hutchinson begins to protest. With tension mounting, it becomes clear that winning this lottery isn’t going to be what we expected, and that the winner isn’t going to walk away with a pile of cash.
Once a family is chosen, the second round begins. In this round, each family member, no matter how old or young, must draw a slip of paper. It is Tess Hutchinson who draws the slip with the black circle. While Mrs. Hutchinson protests the unfairness of the situation, each of the villagers picks up a stone. “And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.” They all close in on her. The story ends with Mrs. Hutchinson being stoned to death while protesting, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.” The story concludes with six of the most famous closing words in short story history, “And then they were upon her.”
It is important to have some historical context to understand this story and the negative reaction that it generated when it appeared in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. The setting for the story, a gathering in a small rural village, wasn’t a fictional construct in America in the summer of 1948. The setting was emblematic of “small town America” and many people identified directly with the setting and the gathering depicted. It was customary at that time for rural community leaders to organize summertime gatherings to draw people together in town centers to socialize and to frequent and support some of the town’s business establishments. It was thought to be good for the businesses and good for the community. These gatherings were usually organized by the city council and featured lotteries with modest cash-prizes to help lure people into their vehicles for the long drive to town. So the scene was instantly recognizable to the readers – especially rural readers – when the story was published, and they did not like the way that this particular story developed and concluded. Many interpreted the story as an attack on the values of rural communities and “small town America.” As a result, the story caused an unanticipated avalanche of anger and criticism.
When the story was released it caused a very strong negative reaction and backlash that manifested itself in subscription cancellations for The New Yorker and large amounts of what could be described as “hate mail” for both the magazine and the author. Shirley Jackson and the editors at The New Yorker were very surprised by the reaction. Even Jackson’s mother was critical of the work. Here is an excerpt from Jackson herself:
‘It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted
that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”‘
One literary critic described the story as “a chilling tale of conformity gone mad.” Yes, that’s a nice sound-bite to release in a classroom discussion, a book gathering or a short story seminar but I honestly doubt that the letters received by Jackson in 1948 cursed her for writing a tale of ‘conformity gone mad.’ I do suspect that some people picked up and reacted strongly to the idea that Jackson might be suggesting that underneath the idyllic image of rural communities peopled by wholesome citizens, that there might be a sinister force waiting to be unleashed. The people in those communities certainly didn’t see themselves that way. I suspect that some folks made simpler inferences about the story that they still found offensive; that the stones represented harmful gossip and insults, that these gatherings were a place where unfounded rumors could be born by chance and inflict real damage on those targeted; as gathering by gathering, a new “target” might become subject to slander earned or unearned.
Jackson kept her intended meaning to herself, believing that it would emerge more clearly with the passage of time. But considering that she was genuinely surprised by the reaction, it seems logical to conclude that she intended to make a commentary on general human nature rather than a specific criticism of rural American communities in the mid-20th century.
Personally, I think the questions of permission and participation make for a great discussion or essay about this particular short story. As small as the gathering is, it is an official event and an act of governance. The American author and intellectual Henry David Thoreau suggested that you have a moral responsibility for your government; that when the government does something wrong — say, handing out “free” small-pox infected blankets to Native American Indian tribes — that it’s not right to simply blame the government, because by extension that government belongs to you and acts on your behalf. So the blame belongs to you as well. That is part of the foundation for many of the ideas he advocates in his essay On Civil Disobedience.
In The Lottery, I see questions regarding the use of force: why would you voluntarily participate in an annual lottery like this? Yet the people come every year. Why? I also see questions about permission and consent. Are people willing to tolerate the possibility of bad things happening in their community as long as the odds of it happening to them are low and the cost of speaking out and protesting against it might be high? What are we willing to trade-off or to compromise to be part of a community? How do these questions relate to modern American culture and politics where some people — an increasing number — believe that some individual liberty should be sacrificed for the good of the community while others believe that individual liberty and the freedom to make personal choices is the highest consideration. That can be a difficult question for some, and they wish to answer it with a compromise: “Of course “some” individual liberty must be sacrificed.” This story may be useful for removing the middle ground and raising guiding principles to the surface for consideration.