"The Lottery" is a short story written by Shirley Jackson, first published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. The story describes a fictional small town which observes an annual ritual known as "the lottery", which results in the killing of one individual in the town.
|Publisher||The New Yorker|
|Publication date||June 26, 1948|
"The Lottery" has been described as "one of the most famous short stories in the history of American literature". It initially received a negative response, which surprised both Jackson and The New Yorker. Readers cancelled subscriptions and sent hate mail throughout the summer. The Union of South Africa banned the story.[page needed]
Details of contemporary small-town American life are embroidered upon a description of an annual ritual known as "the lottery". In a small village of about 300 residents, the locals are in an excited yet nervous mood on June 27. Children gather stones as the adult townsfolk assemble for their annual event, which in the local tradition is practiced to ensure a good harvest (Old Man Warner quotes an old proverb: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon"), though there are some rumors that nearby communities in the north are talking about giving up the lottery, and some have done so.
The lottery preparations start the night before with Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves making the paper slips and the list of all the families. Once the slips are finished, they are put into a black box, which is stored overnight in a safe place at the coal company. The story briefly mentions how the ballot box has been stored over the years in various places in the town.
On the morning of the lottery, the townspeople gather close to 10 a.m. in order to have everything done in time for lunch. First, the heads of the extended families draw slips until every family has a slip. Bill Hutchinson gets the one slip with a black spot, meaning that his family has been chosen. The second round would ordinarily be to select one household within the family, but since there is only one Hutchinson household (Bill's adult sister and daughter are counted with their husbands' families), the second round is skipped.
The final round is for the individual family members within the winning household to draw, no matter their age. Bill's wife Tessie gets the marked slip. After the drawing is over and Tessie is picked, the slips are allowed to fly off into the wind. In keeping with tradition, each villager obtains a stone and begins to surround Tessie. The story ends as Tessie is stoned to death while she bemoans the unfairness of the situation.
One of the major ideas of "The Lottery" is that of a scapegoat. The act of stoning someone to death yearly purges the town of the bad and allows for the good. This is hinted in the references to agriculture.
The story also speaks of mob psychology and the idea that people can abandon reason and act cruelly if they are part of a large group of people behaving in the same manner. The idyllic setting of the story also demonstrates that violence and evil can take place anywhere and in any context. This also shows how people can turn on each other so easily.
An underlying theme, whether intended or coincidental, is that of judgment. The reader's judgment is solicited by the author. These people living in a storybook town are simply acting out an ancient tradition, in a very matter of fact manner. The perception of malice or evil lies completely with the reader, the "outsider". While going to extreme examples to solicit such thoughts and feelings, the author implores us to look at ourselves and our own society as well as different societies around the world. The Lottery raises the question of what customs or traditions that are integral to varying societal or belief systems are judged harshly by others, and who or what is the arbiter.
The New Yorker received a "torrent of letters" enquiring about the story—"the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction". Many readers demanded an explanation of the situation in the story, and a month after the initial publication, Jackson responded in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 22, 1948):
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 lived in North Bennington, Vermont, and her comment reveals that she had Bennington in mind when she wrote "The Lottery". In a 1960 lecture (printed in her 1968 collection, Come Along with Me), Jackson recalled the hate mail she received in 1948:
One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; 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?"
The New Yorker kept no records of the phone calls, but letters addressed to Jackson were forwarded to her. That summer she regularly took home 10 to 12 forwarded letters each day. She also received weekly packages from The New Yorker containing letters and questions addressed to the magazine or editor Harold Ross, plus carbon copies of the magazine's responses mailed to letter writers.
Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even—in one completely mystifying transformation—made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. 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.
Helen E. Nebeker's essay, "'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force", in American Literature (March 1974), claims that every major name in the story has a special significance.
By the end of the first two paragraphs, Jackson has carefully indicated the season, time of ancient excess and sacrifice, and the stones, most ancient of sacrificial weapons. She has also hinted at larger meanings through name symbolism. "Martin", Bobby's surname, derives from a Middle English word signifying ape or monkey. This, juxtaposed with "Harry Jones" (in all its commonness) and "Dickie Delacroix" (of-the-Cross) urges us to an awareness of the Hairy Ape within us all, veneered by a Christianity as perverted as "Delacroix," vulgarized to "Dellacroy" by the villagers. Horribly, at the end of the story, it will be Mrs. Delacroix, warm and friendly in her natural state, who will select a stone "so large she had to pick it up with both hands" and will encourage her friends to follow suit ... "Mr. Adams," at once progenitor and martyr in the Judeo-Christian myth of man, stands with "Mrs. Graves"—the ultimate refuge or escape of all mankind—in the forefront of the crowd.
Fritz Oehlshlaeger, in "The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson Meaning of Context in 'The Lottery'" (Essays in Literature, 1988), wrote:
The name of Jackson's victim links her to Anne Hutchinson, whose Antinomian beliefs, found to be heretical by the Puritan hierarchy, resulted in her banishment from Massachusetts in 1638. While Tessie Hutchinson is no spiritual rebel, to be sure, Jackson's allusion to Anne Hutchinson reinforces her suggestions of a rebellion lurking within the women of her imaginary village. Since Tessie Hutchinson is the protagonist of "The Lottery," there is every indication that her name is indeed an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, the American religious dissenter. She was excommunicated despite an unfair trial, while Tessie questions the tradition and correctness of the lottery as well as her humble status as a wife. It might as well be this insubordination that leads to her selection by the lottery and stoning by the angry mob of villagers.
The 1992 episode of The Simpsons, "Dog of Death", features a scene referencing "The Lottery". During the peak of the lottery fever in Springfield, news anchor Kent Brockman announces on television that people hoping to get tips on how to win the jackpot have borrowed every available copy of Shirley Jackson's book The Lottery at the local library. One of them is Homer, who throws the book into the fireplace after Brockman reveals that, "Of course, the book does not contain any hints on how to win the lottery. It is, rather, a chilling tale of conformity gone mad." In her book Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy, Bernice Murphy comments that this scene displays some of the most contradictory things about Jackson: "It says a lot about the visibility of Jackson's most notorious tale that more than 50 years after its initial creation it is still famous enough to warrant a mention in the world's most famous sitcom. The fact that Springfield's citizenry also miss the point of Jackson's story completely ... can perhaps be seen as an indication of a more general misrepresentation of Jackson and her work."
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In addition to numerous reprints in magazines, anthologies and textbooks, "The Lottery" has been adapted for radio, live television, a 1953 ballet, films in 1969 and 1997, a TV movie, an opera, and a one-act play by Thomas Martin.
1951 radio versionEdit
A radio adaptation by NBC was broadcast March 14, 1951, as an episode of the anthology series NBC Presents: Short Story. Writer Ernest Kinoy expanded the plot to include scenes at various characters' homes before the lottery and a conversation between Bill and Tessie Hutchinson (Bill suggests leaving town before the lottery happens, but Tessie refuses because she wants to go shopping at Floyd Summers's store after the lottery is over). Kinoy deleted certain characters, including two of the Hutchinsons' three children, and added at least one character, John Gunderson, a schoolteacher who publicly objects to the lottery being held, and at first refuses to draw. Finally, Kinoy included an ending scene describing the townspeople's post-lottery activities, and an afterword in which the narrator suggested, "Next year, maybe there won't be a Lottery. It's up to all of us. Chances are, there will be, though." The production was directed by Andrew C. Love.
Larry Yust's short film, The Lottery (1969), produced as part of Encyclopædia Britannica's 'Short Story Showcase' series, was ranked by the Academic Film Archive "as one of the two bestselling educational films ever". It has an accompanying ten-minute commentary film, Discussion of "The Lottery" by University of Southern California English professor James Durbin. Featuring the film debut of Ed Begley, Jr., Yust's adaptation has an atmosphere of naturalism and small town authenticity with its shots of pick-up trucks and townspeople in Fellows, California.
1996 TV filmEdit
Anthony Spinner's feature-length TV film, The Lottery, which premiered September 29, 1996, on NBC, is a sequel loosely based on the original Shirley Jackson story. It was nominated for a 1997 Saturn Award for Best Single Genre Television Presentation.
In The Simpsons episode "Dog of Death" all copies of the book are checked out of the local library in the hope that it may contain information on how to win an upcoming lottery draw. Homer Simpson is seen reading a copy of the novel, and on learning that it is useless in helping him to win the lottery, throws it on the fire.
The music video for the song "Man That You Fear" (1996) by Marilyn Manson references The Lottery. The video starts with a young girl standing blindfolded in the middle of a commune of trailers, and randomly picking Manson and family's trailer. Manson and his wife and child then each shower, get ready, and join the townspeople on a short trek out to the desert. The video ends as the townspeople all pick up rocks, while Manson opens his girdle and prepares to be stoned to death.
In the television series A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017), Season 2, Episode 5, The Vile Village: Part 1, as Mr. Poe is driving the children to the village of VFD, Violet says: "An entire village will be in charge of us? That's a lot of people", to which Mr. Poe responds: "I imagine they'll draw lots like in that wonderful Shirley Jackson story."
In the videogame sequel, Fallout: New Vegas, a vault bunker (Vault 11) created before the Great War, 200 years prior to the game's beginning, was used to test a similar experiment on its residents. The people housed there were informed by the first of their vault's "Overseers" that every year, one of the citizenry would be elected by democratic process to be Overseer, though, once their term has ended, the Overseer would be sacrificed, otherwise the entire group would be executed via the Vault's Mainframe, citing that it was necessary for all of their survival.
- Shirley Jackson (26 June 1948). "The Lottery". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2008-05-22.
- Harris, Laurie Lanzen; Abbey, Cherie D. (2000). Biography Today: Profiles of People of Interest to Young Readers. Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics. p. 71. ISBN 9780780804029. Retrieved 2012-06-26.
- Jackson, Shirley; Hyman, Stanley Edgar (1968). Come Along with Me; Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures (2nd ed.). New York: Viking Press. ISBN 9780670231584.
- Jackson, Shirley (1998). Just an ordinary day. Hyman, Laurence J.; DeWitt, Sarah Hyman. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 9780553378337. OCLC 38059007.
- "The Lottery Themes - eNotes.com". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
- Franklin, Ruth (2013-06-25). ""The Lottery" Letters". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2018-03-14.
- Murphy, Bernice M. (2005). "Introduction: 'Do You Know Who I Am?', Reconsidering Shirley Jackson". Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy. Jefferson: McFarland & Company. p. 1. ISBN 9780786423125. Retrieved 23 August 2017.
- Goldin, J. David. "Radio Goldindex". NBC Short Story. Retrieved 9 July 2012.
- "NBC Short Story". The Lottery. The Generic Radio Workshop Vintage Radio Script Library. Retrieved July 9, 2012.
- "NBC Short Story" (audio). "The Lottery". Matinee Classics. Retrieved July 9, 2012.
- Read "The Lottery" in the New Yorker archive (subscription required)
- Detailed plot summary of "The Lottery"
- Salon: Jonathan Lethem: "Monstrous Acts and Little Murders"
- "The Lottery" study guide and teaching guide – analysis, themes, quotes, multimedia for students and teachers
- The New Yorker podcast: A. M. Homes discusses and reads "The Lottery"
- NBC Short Story: "The Lottery" (March 14, 1951)
- "The Lottery" read by Maureen Stapleton
- 1988 interview with Judy Oppenheimer
- Audio dramatization from WOUB Public Media (Athens, Ohio)