Looking Back at a Great Short Story
On this date in the year 1948, The New Yorker published a story called “The Lottery.” As a sign of how far we’ve either progressed or regressed, it caused quite a stir. Imagine a short story causing a stir these days.
“The Lottery” is set in a nondescript small town. The townspeople gather together and engage in the sort of small talk that may sound familiar if you grew up in a small town. But there’s a strange tension under their words. And a strange ritual commences.
People start to draw pieces of paper out of a black box—some sort of ceremony with which they’re all familiar. Those who draw a blank paper feel a sense of relief—while one man named Hutchinson draws a paper with a mark on it. Then each member of Hutchinson’s family draws papers. This time the wife, Tessie, gets the paper with the mark on it:
“All right, folks,” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box… The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles. Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her.
You can probably guess the rest.
“The Lottery” is justly considered one of the great American short stories. It has a mythical, Twlight-Zone-ish quality that invites a variety of interpretations. The story’s sinisterness is something we’re very comfortable with here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, but the reaction was quite different when it was first published. The author, Shirley Jackson, later said:
…Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”
People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
Looking back on it, you can’t help but be amused by readers’ reactions—their inability to appreciate something that shines a light on the less uplifting side of human nature, their failure to distinguish fiction from fact.
But lest we get too high and mighty about the whole thing, it’s important to remember that the central message—condemnation, rather—of the story is still just as applicable to us. Here’s what Jackson had to say about what she was trying to say with the story:
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.
There are a lot of things that could fall under the heading of pointless violence and general inhumanity in our own lives. Even though as individuals very few of us would murder, maim, or discriminate against our fellow man, as a group we allow it to happen with our tacit approval.
Think of the War on Drugs. Everybody knows that addiction is hardly a matter of “moral fiber,” everybody knows that there will always be a demand for drugs, everybody knows that cartels will continue to reign in terror as long as they have so much money coming in—but it doesn’t look like anything’s going to change anytime soon.
Another thing that springs to mind is traffic fatalities. On September 11, 2001, terrorists took the lives of 2,977 victims. That same year, over twelve times that number of Americans—37,526, to be exact—were killed by cars. Which goes to show that when damage is inflicted from the outside, the effect is, understandably, rage—but when it comes from within, the result is a shrug.