Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is so famous that you probably know about it even if you haven’t read it. But if you haven’t heard of it, it won’t take long to summarize because, frankly, very little happens. For about six pages, men, women, and children in an unnamed village gather together and make small talk while taking out pieces of paper from inside an old box. Though we don’t know what this lottery is all about, there is a mounting sense of dread until we learn that the “winner” – the person who pulled out the only piece of paper with a black spot on it – earns the right to be stoned to death.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that the events of the story are so mundane, including the jarring conclusion. Characters treat the collective murder of a neighbor like a routine, with the same blasé, half-conscious attitude with which they treat small talk about work and taxes. Speaking of the lottery itself, Jackson never says when it started or why, which naturally heightens its mystery and seemingly ahistorical character. And if you can’t determine when or why something started, it can be incredibly difficult to end – it feels natural, a normal and eternal part of existence itself. However, she does hint at its history. For example, she notes that the village’s box is not the original box, but that it is so old that people are reticent to replace it (they also think part of the box might be made from the original, which seems to make it sacrosanct).
I can’t help but interrupt myself here to ask what chance there is that the lottery will end when the villagers are scared of even replacing the damn box? Granted, some characters note that there are places where people are talking about getting rid of the lottery, but Old Man Warner dismisses the “young people” who want to end the lottery as fools. You might be thinking there’s some hope since it’s young people who are arguing against the lottery, but, well, it’s worth remembering that the children in the village are among the first to collect stones for the eventual murder.
It’s worth emphasizing this is a murder because the process of picking a “winner” is described in so much detail that the human cost can get lost. Just like in any bureaucracy, when things get too complicated it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really going on. And it’s precisely our tendency to allow details to overwhelm us that allows absurd barbaric acts like the lottery to continue, along with the equally distressing fact that the passage of time often lends gravity and credibility to the most ludicrous ideas.
You might be thinking, “Matt, remember, this is only fiction.” But consider this – when the story was released in 1948, readers were furious. They wrote hundreds of letters complaining to the editors who published it, and people only react with this kind of ferocity when something strikes a collective nerve. This is easily understood, given that the indescribable savagery of World War II was still being absorbed, but I can’t help feeling that this story isn’t powerful because it realistically portrays a bygone period, but because it realistically exposes a permanent element of human nature that we cannot afford to ignore.
Jackson’s “The Lottery” is the literary equivalent of a swift punch to the gut, and you owe it to yourself to read it, if only to know to protect yourself when (and yes, not if, but when) you find yourself in the midst of a mob mentality, and you have to decide whether you’re going to do what is right, or simply obey, even if you don’t know why.
So go read it. Now.