“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock…”
The Lottery begins with this idyllic description of a pastoral morning in a sun-warmed village. Shirley Jackson’s deeply disturbing parable about the horrors of following orders and the darkness behind everyday American life was published on June 19, 1948 in The New Yorker. Haunting and infinitely readable, the short story centers on a small rural village holding an annual lottery. What is the lottery for? Well, we don’t know until the final moments of the tale. Jackson paints everything leading up to that with a sense of sweetness and normalcy. It makes her big reveal even more brutal. Friends chatter and gossip, and children play together, collecting smooth rocks. The gathering is even hosted by kind old Mr. Summers, who is also in charge of barn dances and the teen-age club.
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The sharpest weapon in Jackson’s literary arsenal is her understanding of the things that would make her readers feel safe. The Lottery lulls you into a false sense of security, familiarity, and even aspiration. It plays into the idea of a simple small town live, something that many in America still idolize. Framing her story in such a way had the desired impact; the people who opened the pages of the magazine that June were horrified. It quickly garnered the “most mail The New Yorker had ever received in response to a work of fiction.”
In the 2013 article “The Lottery Letters,” Jackson’s biographer Ruth Franklin explored the impact of the story at the time and how it shook readers. The only letter-writer that Franklin could personally speak to for the piece was Miriam Friend. She stated, “I don’t know how anyone approved of that story.” That was the general response to the shocking piece which has become a cultural and literary staple since its release. Jackson said she received over 300 letters and only 13 were “kind.”
It’s unsurprising that The Lottery turned stomachs and baffled readers. As we stare through the apparently rose-tinted glasses of Jackson’s take on rustic life, the edges begin to blur. The neighbors discuss how the lottery will be stopped in other villages. This is rejected as a foolish decision, which is strange. Who would care whether another town takes part in such a frivolous fun tradition? Well, that comes down to what the lottery is deciding and what it stands for. And that was what truly angered readers. If the lottery was real—and many thought that it was—why on Earth would people take part in it and what was its purpose?
The horror of Jackson’s story comes at its end. The villagers draw names from a black wooden box that has been in the community longer than most of its members. Jackson waxes lyrical about how the more detailed rituals of the lottery have long gone and now people just turn up late, wear their normal clothes, and don’t salute or sing. In fact, it has just become another boring part of life. That is what makes the dawning realization of what the lottery is truly terrifying.
Senseless violence has long been at the heart of America. But, ironically, it’s still a taboo subject. Even though violence is part of America’s foundation. The Lottery is about just that. Villagers pick slips from out of the box until just one family remains, then that unlucky family has to draw until each holds a piece of paper. The person with a black spot on their paper meets a violent end. Their friends, neighbors, lovers, and children stone them to death. Jackson offers no reasoning for the violence. It is accepted wholly by everyone except the victim. As we leave the village, Tessie Hutchinson’s skull is being crushed by the very women she was gossiping with moments before.
Readers were furious. Confused by the lack of explanation. Morbidly intrigued by the idea that this might be a story about a real town where these rituals still happen. But many missed the point. They were horrified by the violence but didn’t comprehend what it meant. While there are many readings, the one that seems just as timely and brutal today is how much horror and violence people will accept to keep the status quo. We never find out the reason for the lottery, but it’s clear it happens in multiple villages. Over time people have come to act as if it’s a normal part of life. They’re willing to kill their neighbors simply because an authority tells them to. It echoes the reality of fascism; how people will overlook atrocities for their own comfort.
“The Banality of Evil” is a phrase that becomes ever more relevant each day. The Lottery predates Hannah Arendt’s work by nearly two decades, and yet Jackson showcases just how the mundane and everyday can become horrific simply when no one speaks up. Aside from its power as a parable, the work is a brilliant and seminal early example of folk horror, the ritualistic rural subgenre that has shaped our fear for decades. Just like The Wicker Man and Midsommar, The Lottery takes an idyllic locale, apparently friendly community, and strange traditions and utilizes them to create something truly terrifying even when drenched in the midday sun.
The Lottery is one of the most widely reprinted short horror stories of all time and is still available to read for free on The New Yorker website. It has many adaptations—it was even parodied in The Simpsons. And a ton of movies have ripped it off, giving the story or Jackson little to no credit. The sharpness and strength of the tale feels ahead of its time, especially its rural New England setting and refusal to give easy answers. The Lottery feels like a precursor to many of the most important genre storytellers like Rod Serling and Steven King. The hazy, picture-perfect ideal of small town Americana thrown into strict contrast with a brutality that many of us are loath to admit exists in our day to day lives.
Header Image: Nicholas Blumhardt via Flickr Creative Commons