When "The Lottery" was first published in 1948, it created an enormous controversy and great interest in its author, Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco, California on December 14, 1919. When she was two years old, her family moved her to Burlingame, California, where Jackson attended high school. After high school Jackson moved away to attend college at Rochester University in upstate New York but after only a short time at Rochester and, after taking off a year from school, she moved on to Syracuse University. At first, Jackson was in the School of Journalism at Syracuse but soon moved to the English Department to pursue her interest in writing. Jackson soon started publishing works in the school news paper and eventually, she and a classmate and future husband, Stanley Hyman started their own magazine under the supervision of teacher, Leonard Brown, who Jackson later described as her mentor.
After graduating from Syracuse in 1940, Jackson and college sweetheart Hyman married and moved to Vermont. In Vermont, Jackson did a lot of writing, publishing many books, children's stories and humorous pieces, including a book about family life titled "Life among Savages."The Lottery" was a radical departure from the tone and contents of her other works. (web) In 1948, Jackson wrote what turned out to be probably her most famous short story entitled "The Lottery." When "The Lottery" appeared in the New Yorker, it created a huge controversy and received a lot of press for its dark psychological horror. Many people believed that "The Lottery" was about how society can be cruel to individuals, the violence in society and the overwhelming need of humans to conform to the norms of society without regard to right or wrong. Many people found the story gross and disgusting because of the surprising murder at the end of the story.
The story has been interpreted by many literary critics and scholars with the general conclusion that "The Lottery" is a satire on the willingness of people to engage collectively in abhorrent behavior, racial prejudice, and sexism all of which are social evils" (Barr 248-49). Jackson recalls when she first got the idea to write "The Lottery."The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller-it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day's groceries-and perhaps the effort of the last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator." It is pretty clear from Jackson's description of her writing process that she did not intend it to be full of the many hidden meanings and messages that critics and scholars have read into it (Hyman 182). Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" illustrates several aspects of the darker side of human nature. The villagers in Jackson's "The Lottery" unquestioningly adhere to a tradition which seems to have lost its relevance and meaning to their lives even when it requires that they brutally kill by stoning one of their neighbors and friends. The ritual that is the lottery shows how easily and willingly people will give up their free will and suspend their consciences to conform to rituals and people in authority. The same mindless complacency and obedience shown by the villagers in Jackson's story are seen in human behavior throughout history and are still visible in current events seen today.
Religion and higher authority are able to convince people to commit horrendous crimes against other human beings without hesitation or guilt. In religion, ritual can be a substitute for taking responsibility for one's actions or even thinking for oneself. The behavior shown by the villagers can also be compared to human beings cruel enjoyment of the suffering of other human beings. This side of human nature probably dates back to the earliest humans but was vividly demonstrated by the bloody spectacles of the Roman gladiators in front of thousands blood thirsty Romans in the coliseum.
This capacity to watch and enjoy violence and cruelty lies within human behavior can been seen everyday in settings, from interactions with coworkers to road rage to school students murdering their fellow students. The Lottery" is the story of a small, ordinary village which holds a lottery every year, but this is not any ordinary lottery. In this lottery the "winner" does not receive any prize, but the opportunity to be stoned to death by his friends and neighbors. "The Lottery" is conducted by an ordinary man from the village named Mr. Summers. Summers places one piece of folded paper into a black box for each family in the village.
One of the pieces of paper has a black spot on it. The head of each family, usually the father or the oldest son if the father is deceased will chose one piece of paper from the box. The only way a woman can pick from the box is if she has no male left in her family to choose for her. Once everyone has a piece of paper, the papers are unfolded to see who has chosen the paper with the black dot. That person's family will then repeat the process until an individual in that family has picked out the paper with the black dot. The lucky winner of "The Lottery" was Bill Hutchinson.
Mr. Hutchinson's family of four: Tessie, his wife, and two children then choose from the box and, finally, Mrs. Hutchinson picks the winning piece of paper. As her daughter celebrates her good fortune at not having been chosen, Tessie complains about the fairness of the drawing.
She is told to "Shut up" by her husband and shortly after, Tessie was stoned to death. Rituals sometimes make no sense especially to those who do not follow them; they only survive because of habit, complacency and comfort in the status quo. The lottery is obviously a long established practice in the village, so old that "the original paraphernalia had been forgotten or discarded." The black box itself had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest villager, had been born. Mr. Warner suggests that the origin of the lottery was to ensure a good harvest: "Lottery in June, corn heavy soon." For the majority of the villagers, however, it is likely that they no longer knew why the lottery was performed but continued it because, "There has always been a lottery." Performing mindless, meaningless rituals was comforting and tool away personal responsibility for the consequences of the ritual.
The villagers were not individually guilty but shared only a small portion of the guilt as only one member of the larger group. Their actions were not their own but were required by the lottery and Mr. Summers, the village's most revered and wealthy man. One of the villagers, Mr. Adams timidly suggests another village is thinking of giving up the lottery. His wife supports him saying, "Some places have already quit lotteries." They quickly back down from this suggestion when Old man Warner begins his defense of the lottery.
"Pack of crazy fools," he says referring to the village dumb enough to consider such a thing. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know' they " ll be wanting to go back to living in caves." He went on, "Nothing but trouble in that!" Later, as if to demonstrate his solidarity with the village and that his idea was really a bad one; Mr. Adams was in the front when the stoning of Mrs. Hutchinson began (Jackson 331). Authority and rituals allow people to blindly and mindlessly obey the orders of their leaders or fulfill the requirements of a ritual.
When a government tells its army or people that they must fight another people or country the people almost always follow without question because their leaders have provided the justification for their actions. No need to think for themselves. Just as the government tells its people to go to war, people like Old Man Warner and Mr. Summers tell villagers they must enter "The Lottery." Just like the armies following the orders, the villagers line up to draw their scraps of paper from the black box. This kind of obedience has been going on throughout history and into today. In World War II, the Germans ordered the slaughter of millions of Jewish people, gypsies and other foreigners.
The German soldiers followed the orders creating the holocaust. Many German civilians just stood by and witnessed as people were murdered in concentration camps all around the country. Today, genocide is being committed in Darfur, an area in the Sudan in which rebel groups are fighting the government. The government in Darfur has been poorly run for decades, the economy was a mess, and rebel groups, trying to improve the situation, started a guerilla war with the government. The government hired militias to remove people from the area of Darfur where the rebels operate, creating homelessness, starvation, disease and death. (web) The events that are taking place currently in Darfur show how a higher form of authority such as a government can influence its people to behave in extremely violent and cruel ways just by taking advantage the people's blind obedience to authority.
Religion also has the power to incite people to violent acts which God fearing, law abiding people would not otherwise consider. The mass suicide at Jonestown by over 900 followers of the Reverend James Jones is an extreme example of unquestioned obedience to the strong leader of a religious Christian cult. Jones somehow convinced his followers that they would all go to heaven together but that it was necessary for them to simultaneously kill themselves. In response 900 men women and their children all drank Kool-Aid laced with poison and killed themselves. For parents to kill their children and themselves is obviously a violation of several basic Christian beliefs but the power of the unquestioned leader and the ritual of religion induced people to behave in ways completely contrary to their beliefs. While "The Lottery" is a work of fiction, its underlying themes of human violence and cruelty, obedience to rituals and authority can be seen in many of the events of recent and contemporary history.
The people of Jackson's time era were not used to someone telling such graphic truths through a short story. If Jackson had written her Story today I am sure there would not be anything close to the public uproar that occurred in 1948 when the story was published. Works Cited Barr, Donald. "A Talent for Irony." New York Times Book Review (1949): 4 Rpt in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas Votteler.
Vol. 9 Detroit: Gale, 1992. 248 Crisis Group. "Crisis in Darfur." 20 Mar. 2005 Hyman, Edgar Stanley. "Biography of a Story." Come Along With Me.
(1960): 211-25. Rpt in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jenny Crombie. Vol 39 Farmington Hills: Gale, 2000.
181-185 Jackson, Shirley. "The Lottery." Literature The Human Experience Reading and Writing. Ed. Richard Abc arian and Marvin Klotz. 8 th ed. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin's, 2004. 328-334 Reagan, Bette. "Shirley Jackson - Life and Work." 18 Mar.