Apparently when Shirley Jackson first published this story in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so shocked by it that she was sent hate mail. Sound like it ought to be perfect for this week’s…
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
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.
On this beautiful morning, the people of this typical small town American village gather together to celebrate the annual tradition of the lottery. The tradition goes back so far that no-one really remembers why it began, though Old Man Warner suggests it was originally some kind of ritual to ensure a good harvest. Schools are closed for the summer, so all the kids are there, and neighbours chat cheerfully as they gather in the square. But the behaviour of the boys give an early indication that something a little darker might be going on…
Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…
Everyone knows exactly what will happen, but Mr Summers takes charge as he does every year to make sure everything is done fairly and according to the rules. There are only three hundred people in the village, including children, so it won’t take long. As they chat, some mention rumours that other towns and villages have decided to stop running the lottery, but the older folk think that’s foolish – why mess with tradition?
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.
Eventually all is ready, and the man at the head of each family draws a slip of paper from the box. As they wait for Mr Summers to give them the signal to look at the paper, the holiday atmosphere changes to one of tension…
For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Who’s got it?’, ‘Is it the Dunbars?’, ‘Is it the Watsons?’.
It turns out it’s the Hutchinsons. Now the atmosphere changes again, as the mother of the family, Tessie Hutchinson, declares the draw was unfair and should be done again. But she meets with little sympathy from her friends or even her family…
‘Be a good sport, Tessie,’ Mrs Delacroix called, and Mrs Graves said, ‘All of us took the same chance.’
‘Shut up, Tessie.’ Bill Hutchinson said.
The next round of the draw begins, to decide which of the Hutchinson family is to be chosen. The father? Young Nancy? Or maybe the little one, Dave, too young to draw without assistance…
* * * * *
This is a chilling little tale which, even as the first story she published, shows some of the techniques Jackson used to great effect in her later work. No gothic ruins or thunderstorms, Jackson’s stories take place in the full glare of summer sunshine and it’s the contrast of the total normality of the people with the sheer craziness of what they are about to do that creates the feeling of menace – of madness. To be honest, I felt it was pretty obvious what was going to happen from the point in the second paragraph when the boys were gathering stones, but that might be because there have been derivatives of this story over the intervening decades.
What interested me more than the story was the fact that it inspired hate mail from contemporary readers. Partly it seems to have been as a result of confusion – a bit like the Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds thing – with some readers thinking it was a report of real events. But otherwise some of the hate that was hurled at Jackson seems to be wildly over the top for a story which, while well written and effectively horrifying, would be considered relatively mild today. Perhaps in 1948, the horrors of WW2 were too fresh in people’s minds for them to be willing to consider that any group of people can do evil unthinkingly if they blindly follow rules and obey their leaders without question.
Apparently Jackson’s explanation was “I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” It appears she may have shocked them even more than she intended.
If you’d like to read the story for yourself, here’s a link. It’s very short – about 3500 words.
Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀