The Picture of Society in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” was first published in the New Yorker, in 1948 and it aroused a lot of controversy among the newspaper’s readers. Those who read Jackson’s story were totally confused and unable to understand the author’s intentions. In 1948 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle Jackson accounted for her reasons behind writing the story:
Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. 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. (Jackson in Kosenko 1985: 27)
Although the author succeeded in startling the readers, the motives for portraying the American society in such a way were still unclear.
Is there any correspondence between the writer’s personal experiences and the image of society she depicts in “The Lottery”? First of all, the village described in the story seems to be similar to a rural area in which Jackson lived when she wrote it. Secondly, the short story villagers’ violence may have its origin in an incident from Shirley Jackson’s life. She created the story after she had been pelted with stones by some school children while she had been going home. What is more, Lynette Carpenter makes the interesting remark that Jackson had a tendency to bestow her own features of character on her heroines. Tessie Hutchinson’s fear and social rejection may represent the authors’ suffering at lack of her friends’ loyalty and the necessity to withdraw from the university.
Shirley Jackson’s insights and observations about man and society are distressing:
The themes themselves are not new: evil cloaked in seeming good; prejudice and hypocrisy; loneliness and frustration; psychological studies of minds that have slipped the bonds of reality. (Friedman 1975: 44)
The author uses numerous symbols in order to portray the worst flaws of human nature. The names of her characters are deliberately chosen. The protagonist’s surname - Tessie Hutchinson - the villagers’ scapegoat, links her to Anne Hutchinson, who suffered prejudice because of her Antinomian beliefs that were considered heretical by the Puritan society. As a result, she was banned from Massachusetts in 1638. The use of this surname indicates that Tessie lives in a community which is totally deprived of tolerance. There are also another names, distinctly symbolic, used by Jackson to show the ignorance of the sacrificial lottery, which the small village holds every year. These sacrifices, which used to be held to appease the god of harvest, have become meaningless in their culture. One of the most important men in the town is Mr Summers. Summer is the season of year. It is the season of growing, the season of life. His name partly represents the old pagan fertility ritual because the harvest that is being sacrificed to is grown in summer. The fact that the villagers stick to such primitive rituals is the indication of their worst instincts.
What is the lottery and what function does it fulfil in this community? Jackson describes an “average” New England village with “average” citizens engaged in a deadly rite, the annual selection of a sacrificial victim by means of a public lottery. Not until the end of the story does the reader suspect that the “winner” will be stoned to death by the rest of the villagers. The lottery mentioned above is the essential part of the village tradition. In the middle of the story, Old Man Warner emerges as a supporter of the lottery quoting an old village proverb, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” (Jackson 1976: 208) However, the lottery does not only represent the tradition. It is also an essential element of the social order. It serves to instil an unconscious fear in the villagers that if they rebel against the social rules, they might be selected in the next lottery. There are no direct attempts of abolishing the lottery. The only citizens whose behaviour shows rebellious impulses are the Adams and Tessie Hutchinson. Mr and Mrs Adams, whose last name suggests a humanity that has not been entirely effaced, briefly mention other villages that are either talking about giving up the lottery or have already done it. Because of the subconscious fear, they do not suggest that their village should give it up. Their reservation may indicate a vague sense of guilt concerning what they are about to do.
As for Tessie’s rebellion, she does not object to the lottery itself but only to her selection as its scapegoat. She would not have had anything against the fact that someone else had been chosen. Stoning Tessie is the only way in which the villagers may express their dissatisfaction with the social rules and repress their own temptations to rebel. As far as the nervous laughter of the crowd is concerned, it expresses uncertainty about the validity of the taboos that Tessie breaks. Yet, the anger at the rebellious victim is what dominates as the villagers are aware of the dire consequences that resisting the social rules may have.
One of the most important elements of the collective order in the village is the social ladder and the division of work which is closely connected to it. Those who are at the top of the ladder – Mr Summers, Mr Graves and Mr Martin control the town. As Mr Summers is the major of the village and has the largest business in the town; Mr Graves is the village’s second most powerful official – its postmaster and Mr Martin is the owner of the grocery shop, they rule the village economically. What is more, they also govern the town politically and administer the lottery. As Kosenko writes in his essay A Reading of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”:
It is no coincidence that the lottery takes place in the village square ‘between the post-office and the bank’ – two buildings which represent government and finance, the institutions from which Summers, Graves, and Martins derive their power. (Kosenko 1985: 27)
There is a direct relationship between Mr Summers’ interests as the town’s wealthiest businessman and his supervising the lottery. When Tessie Hutchinson’s husband forces her to open the lottery slip to the crowd, the reader learns that: “ It had a black spot on it, the black spot Mr Summers had made the night before with a heavy pencil in his coal-company office.” (Jackson in Kosenko 1985 :28) As Kosenko writes, the black dot on the lottery slip symbolizes “(…) the blackness (evil) of Mr Summers’ (coal) business (…)” (Ibid)
Furthermore, although the lottery’s conduct seems to be democratic, it is just an illusion. Mr Summers, who officiates the annual event, wears jeans in order to convince the villagers that he is just one of the common people. However, he also wears a “clean white shirt” (Jackson in Kosenko 1985: 29), a garment more appropriate to his class. What is equally important, although his appeal for help in conducting the lottery may sound democratic –“Some of you fellows want to give me a hand?” (Ibid), Mr Martin, who reacts, is the third most influential person in the town. It is obvious for villagers that Mr Summers’ question is formal. They realize that “it is not just anyone who can help Summers” (Kosenko 1985: 30) The fact that the lottery is democratic on the surface prevents the citizens from criticizing the class structure of their society.
- Quote paper
- M.A. Anna Dabek (Author), 2008, The Picture of Society in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/284451