Story Playlist 20: The Lottery

Shirley Jackson: “The Lottery” (1948) What new remains to be said about the most-anthologized short story in history? Shirley Jackson’s classic story, it seems, is read by every American high school student, and is analyzed in classes across America with a batch of cookie-cutter teacher questions. At what point did you realize that the lottery in the story was one that people did not want to win? What are some elements of foreshadowing employed by the author (the pile of stones that children gather, the “black box” in which lots are drawn that recalls a coffin)? What might this story refer to, considering its publication shortly after World War II? And so on. Predictable questions, perhaps, but for a story that is universally read (at least by American students), it still packs a wallop.

The villagers of a small American community, some 300 strong, gather on the annual day of the lottery—an event that will not take long, they’ll be home in time for lunch. Children gather stones in the town square, and men and women arrive separately—we are in a sort of non-specific Puritanical settlement, the sort about which Hawthorne wrote in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The man who runs the lottery arrives with a coffin-like black box containing slips of paper, one for every villager. A single slip is marked with a pencil-drawn dot. Whoever draws that slip is “the winner.” We realize by the end of the story that the winner is actually the loser—selected by the lottery to be stoned to death in the town square by the other villagers, who can still make it home in time for lunch.

Despite the grim facts of the lottery, the villagers take it for granted, and even pooh-pooh the rumor that some neighboring villages have given up the annual lottery tradition altogether. It is implied that the villagers feel this tradition is necessary to their culture, if not their livelihood, but Jackson does well not to explain this. As we see the lottery in action, we and the villagers are relieved when children do not “win,” and the eventual victim is a wife and mother distinguished largely by her nervousness, while the rest of the villagers are resigned to take the lottery as it comes—although perhaps anyone who “wins” would break down and get edgy. What is most striking is the matter-of-factness with which the whole gruesome process unfolds. Villagers chat with each other, joke, call each other on a first-name basis, as if this were normal and quotidian, albeit not something you look forward to—maybe like a dentist’s appointment.

It’s shooting ducks in a barrel to list the allegorical merits of such a story. Given the publication date (1948), high school English students would likely mention the Holocaust, a perfectly good association. Some might refer to German citizens and soldiers following the orders of the Nazi regime without questioning even the most grotesque commands. Conformism and passivity in the face of horror is what it’s all about, and you don’t need the Second World War (alas) to find examples of it.

Jackson’s decision not to focus on a single protagonist, not to step within the minds of the characters, not really even to provide a narrative arc, but simply to let an ingenious, horrifying concept play out is an interesting one. That she avoided specifics makes the story that much easier to see as an allegory. It’s like one of those Baroque paintings of Justice. Shown in her allegorical form, Justice is presented as an idealized female in a toga, wearing a blindfold and carrying scales in one hand, a sword in the other. We recognize this figure as allegorical, in part due to the fact that she is non-specific. If the painting showed a portrait of a specific queen, dolled up with the accoutrements of Justice, then we would be pulled in two directions, one biographical, the other allegorical. This story, like the idealized painting, is unabashed allegory, focusing our attention on the form presented to us, at the expense of telling a more traditional narrative story in which we cheer for a protagonist and see that protagonist change over the course of the tale.

Jackson did a rare thing with “The Lottery.” She created an archetype that has no evident literary predecessor, but which has influenced pop culture hugely since its publication. There are cultural parallels to its concept—the Spartans culled newborn babies who did not seem physically perfect, for example. There are a number of Greek myths about a princess being sacrificed to appease a monster, as in the legend of St. George and the Dragon. But the idea of a lottery, which Jackson tricks us into thinking you want to win for the first two-thirds of her story, and the numbed normality of the villagers who submit to—and even seem to actively support—this annual execution, struck a chord that still reverberates. Popular fictions like The Hunger Games, which begins with a lottery whose winners are forced to fight for their lives on national television, rely on Jackson’s tale. Creating an archetype that enters the common oxygen is the dream of many a writer. The same goes for writing a story that is considered so good and powerful that it is required reading for every student throughout an entire nation.

Jackson is a wonderful novelist, too little known beyond this story. The Haunting of Hill House is the best haunted house book ever written, hands down, with an oft-quoted opening paragraph that has been sung to the rafters by modern masters of the scary, like Peter Straub and Stephen King. “The Lottery” is less palpably “written” than most stories I’ve read in this project, based as it is entirely on incident—but an incident with a repetitive, allegorical significance, and that makes it distinctive. There is no character development, and most of the characters, aside from the man who runs the lottery and the nervous, ultimate “winner” of it, are barely presented to us, in just a few broad strokes. We cheer for no one, aside from eventually hoping that no one “wins,” once we realize that you do not want to win this sort of lottery. No one changes over the course of the story. The basic premises of good, satisfying fiction seem to be missing. Instead we have a wholly original, killer (literally) concept. The text is merely a method for presenting the concept. And the concept is ingenious because it is not explained away, leaving its readers to make of it what they will.