The dispassionate and ritualized murder of Tess Hutchinson in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) is reminiscent of other disturbing works of literature, such as The Hunger Games, The Long Walk, Battle Royale, etc. At the same time, the events of the short story bring to mind “natural” killings, like those that take place in the animal kingdom daily. A pride of lions will hunt a herd of antelopes, and unavoidably, there will be one, an at times seemingly random one, that will be caught and killed. It’s chance, it’s life –and it’s death. But “The Lottery” is not that.
I contend that “The Lottery” is about moral, ethical, and societal structures, specifically, inequity, control, social oppression and injustice.
While on its surface, “The Lottery” is about a peculiar incident in a small town in the United States, upon analysis, one sees themes that speak to the group dynamics and societal forces inherent in North American culture, such as a concern with individualism, and the natural consequences of this preoccupation: imbalance of power, abuse, neglect, concern with superficial displays of virtuousness, conformity, and extremes of both apathy and schadenfreude, the fascination with and joy in the misfortunes of others.
In “The Lottery” the particulars are left unexplained, the most burning question being: Why does the lottery even exist? Even “most numbers, colours, objects, stars, surnames in the text are ambivalent” (Schaub.) Perhaps this is to allow for the story to be subject to interpretation and serve as analogous to a number of different types of tyranny. Lenemaja Friedman writes in her book Shirley Jackson that “the lottery may be symbolic of any of a number of social ills that mankind blindly perpetuates.” (Hicks). I contend that the root of all social ills is the egocentrism that is in full display in “The Lottery,” as each and every character has only one concern: not being the one who is killed.
Me, me, me…
Egocentrism and individualism. In contrast with community-oriented societies, such as Asian, Hispanic and African communities, US culture is oriented around ideals of individual worth, social status, independence, personal goals, achievement, and the rise to a position of comfort and wellbeing, to which each believes themselves entitled, regardless of, and often at the expense of, other people. When something favorable is eminent, the immediate instinct is “please let it be me.” Me, me, me. When it’s an adverse event, the impulsive thought is “better you than me.” Me, me, me.
Tess Hutchinson would have –and had previously– participated in the killing if it had been someone else –anyone else– who had been selected. This “anyone but me” mentality applies even when it comes to your own family members. Tess did turn in –or tried to– her own daughter and son-in-law. And the extreme level of self-interest is likewise evident in the joy and relief the victim’s own children take in learning they are not the ones who will get stoned, paying no mind to the fact that their own mother has just been sentenced to a violent and undeserved death. We see the exuberantly grateful behavior of Nancy and Bill Jr., the other Hutchinson children, as they “both beamed and laughed, turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads.” (Hicks.)
Our sacrificial lamb
Social, racial, and economic inequality. But can we say for sure that Mrs. Hutchinson’s death was undeserved? Are all the participants victims? If there’s a victim, then there’s a perpetrator. Who is/are the perpetrator(s) of the lottery? Somebody arranged it, and in fact does so every year. Is the practice something the whole village agreed to, a proverbial deal with the devil made and forgotten until immediately before paytime and then only by the sacrificial lamb his/herself?
In the real world, who is the sacrificial lamb? In our present society, that would be the ones we push down so that we may get to the top, the ones we step on for leverage. One could say it’s the starving children of Asia who work at sweatshops so that we Americans may buy cheap cute t-shirts at Target. We fill our shopping carts with great deals and pat ourselves on the back for the smart purchases we made with “our hard-earned money,” and refuse to think about the poor little hands that made them. The shopper and the maker are not in the same position. They are not equal. There is a stark difference between the two’s socioeconomic positions. One suffers so the other one may thrive. And by thriving, the one makes the other suffer. If that one keeps buying t-shirts, the other one has to keep making them. And if one is subjugated, then the other one, the one that profits from this inequity, is the subjugator.
For each woman a clear incentive to produce the largest possible family
The patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny. Oftentimes the difference between the subjugated and the subjugator is along gender lines. “A conflict between male authority and female resistance is subtly evident throughout “The Lottery.”” (Oehlschlaeger). “The nature of the process by which the victim is selected gives each woman a very clear incentive to produce the largest possible family. Each child she has gives her [and each one of her children, although Darwinian principles of life’s purpose being the survival of one’s offspring are clearly absent here] a better chance of surviving if the marked paper falls to her household in the first round. What I am suggesting, then, is that one way the story can be seen is as the depiction of a patriarchal society’s way of controlling female sexuality (Oehlschlaeger) …and everything else, including, but not limited to, the lottery process. Oehlschlaeger says even Mrs. Summers is punished by her male-controlled community, for being “a scold.” But wasn’t she in fact rewarded, by exempting her family –she and her husband– from being picked to die in the lottery? The more children you have the safer you are –except in her case; having no children at all makes her and her husband the only safe ones.
Oehlschlaeger also compares the lottery to the Salem witch trials, during which girls and women were persecuted by men, often forced into turning on each other. Hicks as well makes the connection to the Salem witch trials.
The formula for all systems of abuse is identical
Prejudice, discrimination, and social injustice, i.e., racism, nationalism, economic inequity, homophobia, religious intolerance and persecution, white supremacy, agism, bullying and shaming, etc. Both Hicks and Oehlschlaeger, as we mentioned, draw similarities between the lottery and the Salem witch trials, so the same can be said to apply to the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, and all other instances of religious intolerance and persecution. Hicks refers to parables of capitalism within “The Lottery.” That one person is saying, “This isn’t right, this isn’t fair,” while it’s in everyone else’s best interest to stay quiet and not draw any attention to themselves, and likely even convince themselves that it is right, especially since the person saying it happens to be the victim of the injustice and is therefore not granted any credibility, also calls to mind how racism and other forms of control and tyranny are perpetuated. We’ve already explored the parallels with sexism and a patriarchally-arranged society. The formula for all other systems of abuse is identical, whether the oppression be based on gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, religious beliefs, age, body size and shape, disability, neurodiversity, etc. Some do fight for liberation, i.e., the towns that have abandoned the lottery, while others, particularly among the older, doggedly cling to the tradition and to “the way things have always been done,” while failing to explain their reasoning for adhering to the way things are. As an example, the old man who likens doing away with the lottery to going back to living in caves, not “conscious that he too may be a victim or a persecutor if he resorts unquestioningly to tradition as a line of conduct.” (Schaub).
Traditionalism and conformity. Our society tends toward mob mentality and to blindly following the herd, engaging in “tradition and doing things mindlessly just because that’s what’s always been done, what we’ve inherited from our ancestors. (Schaub). As with everything, children start out innocent to the cynicism of those who have grown used to this absurd situation. In “The Lottery” little Davy Hutchinson gets indoctrinated, without his consent or even awareness, into taking part in killing his mother. Little Davy will grow up thinking that the lottery is normal, a part of ordinary life, because it will be the only thing he’s ever known. His community is toxic, but toxic culture is conditioned not to see toxicity, and instead to normalize the bizarre. Like fish unaware that they’re surrounded by water, our cultural norms are so prevalent and entrenched, that it is in fact easier to go along with the lottery and have there be only “one” victim than to try to overhaul the whole system. Yet the lottery harms the whole group, the entire village, perhaps especially the family members of the victim, but also everyone else having watched it, and worse, participated in it. All the inhabitants live with unnamed and chronic Post-Traumatic Stress. “A sense of community is won at a price, and communal guilt and fear are seen as more binding than communal love.” (Geoffrey Wolff via Jennifer Hicks).
Hicks also mentions “democratic misconduct.” From a social psychology perspective, we’re looking at groupthink, or at least the bystander effect and the concept of diffusion of responsibility. As “Brooks and Warren explain[,] the story reveals «the all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat» (Schaub). From a behavioral psychology perspective, we’re looking at the maladaptations of “passing the buck” and using faulty rationalization to reduce internal cognitive dissonance. And from a psychodynamic/Jungian perspective, we’re looking at persona and shadow, “man’s inhumanity toward man which permeates even the most outwardly looking pleasant places” (Hicks). As Schaub also points out, “Superficial appearances are deceptive.” (Schaub.)
Schadenfreude. On the other side of the coin of apathy, and equally as bad, is humanity’s tendency to derive sick pleasure, if not in themselves inflicting pain or death, then in the displays, often gory, of the misfortune of others. Immediately following its publication, “The Lottery” generated a lot of hatemail, perhaps incited by readers feeling and resenting that they had been made an unwitting accomplice: “When the story ends, the reader is then angered and feels that she or he has participated in the stoning through his or her identification with the characters. (Hicks). But “some also called to see where the town was so that they could go and watch the lottery.” (Hicks). With this, Hicks points to the sadistic voyeurism of people. We enjoy watching “trainwrecks” –celebrity scandals, breakups and meltdowns, disturbing news all day (as a timely example, the nonstop Coronavirus coverage being disseminated in both the media and across social networks), horror movies, tragedies, animals getting killed on The Nature Channel, “lowlifes” on the Jerry Springer show, people getting hurt or shamed on Ridiculousness or America’s Funniest Videos, both of the aforementioned elements on Tiger King, “poverty porn” like Slumdog Millionaire, dystopian movies and novels, True Crime TV… It’s why there’s an audience for snuff films and rape and child pornography, and it’s why the masses have historically congregated to watch gladiators and jousters. And yet, all those who watch and bear witness to abuse without taking action to stop or prevent it, irrespective of whether they are thrilled or disgusted by it, are not innocent spectators; they are silent partners and complicit abusers. The citizens of “The Lottery,” of course, go far beyond passive participation, by joining forces and actively partaking in the murder of Tess Hutchinson.
But to counteract the story’s horrifying finale, let’s end this essay on a note of optimism: Schaub says, “Her case is universal: man’s awareness of absurd habits of mind always comes too late, that is when victimised and no longer in a position to change things.” (Schaub). I disagree. While it does come “easier” for the oppressed to be aware of the coercive forces around them, anyone may become conscious (“woke”) before it’s too late. Especially those with majority status, still have time –and the power– to effect change and foment society’s collective evolution, by actively participating in the creation of social justice.