Publication Date: September 1, 1990
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a short story by Shirley Jackson first published in the New Yorker on June 26, 1948. The story chronicles an annual tradition in a small, contemporary, American town called The Lottery in which families pull marked stones and the winning family pulls individual stones to determine which member will have the honor of making the ultimate sacrifice for a perceived greater good.
Shirley Jackson received a strong response when her short story was published in the New Yorker. Hate mail to the author ran the gamut of confused to angry and some readers even wanted to know where these lotteries were taken place so that they could observe the ritual stoning of a human being to ensure the health of crops.
This lottery takes place in a town of 300 people. There’s a hesitant excitement in the population when the lottery begins. There are rumors of other towns no longer doing the lottery but this town staunchly supports it. They must do the lottery to make sure they have a healthy crop for the good of everyone each family must choose a stone. In the first round, the head of the household draws the first stone. The family with the marked stones must then pull stones individually. Tessie Hutchinson is the unlucky one chosen and the book ends with her being stoned while decrying the lottery as archaic. Jackson later said that people in the story and their blind adherence to tradition no matter the cost was based on the people in the small New England town in which she lived.
Why, readers may ask, are you giving away the plot line of this story? The Lottery is acclaimed as one the most famous short stories in the history of literature. The principle discussed is as old as time. Do we blindly follow what we’ve always done even when we know it’s wrong? When it was written, the story could have been applied to any number of social injustices the world experienced at the time. The Civil Rights movement, the marginalizing of women as men integrated back into the workforce and women were phased out on their return from war. It has also been posited that Jackson, who had a deep interest in the paranormal, was using the story to highlight the danger of adhering to a tradition that led to the Salem Witch Trials. The author’s husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, said that Jackson was always proud that The Lottery was banned in South Africa.
Whatever a reader may take away from this brilliantly written short story, the horror of blind conformity cannot be denied. In the end, it’s the mildest person who picks up the first stone to throw. Any doubts are vanquished as stones rain down on the poor Tessie Hutchinson. This story was my first exposure to Jackson and drove me to seek out other works by and about the author. Shirley Jackson was a thoroughly normal woman who raised a family and struggled with weight and generally fought against whatever sought to put her in a box. I could not have identified more with this wonderfully imperfect woman.
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