In the summer of 1948, more than three hundred letters arrived at the offices of The New Yorker in response to a short story, “the most mail the magazine that ever received in response to a work of fiction” (Ruth Franklin, “‘The Lottery’ Letters,” The New Yorker June 25, 2013). At a time when the post-World War II boom of the United States was about to decline into the paranoia and conformity of the Cold War, the story in question could not be more appropriate, nor terrifying for the American imagination.
“The Lottery” is a tale about a small town in Vermont in which locals anxiously gather for a yearly drawing. Whoever “wins” the lottery is stoned to death for reasons that remain unclear. Jackson suggests through the repeated themes of agriculture that this is enacted like a pagan ritual sacrifice, perhaps so that the crops will grow, but the contemporary setting adds an additional element of the uncanny. Moreover, the fact that each member of the townsfolk is responsible for participating speaks to the horror of an age that encouraged neighbours to report suspicious activity to the authorities as a means of “weeding out” the Red Scare. Ironically, the editors at The New Yorker were accused of being “tools of Stalin” for publishing the piece in the first place by one indignant reader.
Jackson herself claimed she wrote the piece based on her experiences living as an outcast in Bennington, Vermont. She was motivated by the antisemitism towards her husband, a Jewish professor at the local university, and xenophobia by the rural townsfolk, whom she thought would have been suspicious even if she and her husband were WASPs. She was also inspired by folklore, writing that “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.” Whatever the case, it appeared to have touched a nerve in the minds of some readers.
Critics of the piece tended to fall within one of three categories: confusion, derision, or old-fashioned misunderstanding. Many of the letters simply demanded to know what the story meant, others took the story literally and wanted to know where these “lotteries” were being held and wanted to know how they could participate. (Though, to be fair, The New Yorker did not always clearly label its short stories as “fiction” or “nonfiction” at this time.) Those who did manage to pick up on Jackson’s subtle themes tended to respond with outright hostility, but these were fewer and far between. At worst they threatened to cancel their subscriptions or hurled nasty insults at Jackson.
Since its controversial reception, “The Lottery” remains one of the most widely-anthologised short stories today. I remember reading it myself for the first time in my high-school English class and being taken in by the chilling description of the small townsfolk, whom Shirley Jackson based on real-life people she knew from Bennington. It affected me deeply since I also grew up as an outsider in a small rural town and I wondered if my classmates were naturally suspicious of me since I wasn’t born there. But for those who grew up secure in who they were and where they came from, I can imagine it might be a harder story to wrap one’s head around.
I think part of the endurance of “The Lottery” is that it speaks to the mistrust of the “absolute Other” in the twentieth century, particularly in Europe and the United States. Jackson wrote the story not long after World War II, where “lotteries” were being held every day as European citizens accused their neighbours to avoid detection from the Nazis. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon either, lynch mobs and the KKK in the United States after Jim Crow also had ordinary groups of people committing extreme acts of violence. Perhaps the reason why “The Lottery” struck a chord with so many people is that it identified what was already happening in history and the present in such commonplace terms.
When philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil,” she was talking about this exact phenomenon. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that those who commit great acts of violence have learned to disassociate themselves from the action through “holes of oblivion,” essentially rewriting history to justify their deeds as virtuous (today we call them “alternative facts”) or by hiding behind bureaucracy (“just following orders”). “The Lottery” is chilling precisely for this reason: once the “winner” is announced, the townsfolk have no problem enacting this violence when it is justified through tradition or necessity (“There’s always been a lottery”).
However, if we learned anything from “The Lottery”, it’s that turning against our neighbours (or even our family members) rarely solves anything. In fact, it displaces the notion that our communities are anything but safe when they are in the grip of paranoia, rather than banding together we are torn apart. Perhaps then it is wise the heed the words of Tessie Hutchinson as the villagers descend upon her that “it isn’t fair, it isn’t right” when fear of the Other gets the worst of us.
You can still read “The Lottery” on The New Yorker’s website and judge it for yourself.
Kellye McBride is a freelance writer and editor who has very complex ideas about the things that go bump in the night. When she’s not seeking out the dark forces and joining their hellish crusade, you can find her on Twitter at @kellyemmcbride or on her website, kellyemcbrideediting.com.