Although Shirley Jackson wrote many books, children's stories and humorous pieces, she is most remembered for her story "The Lottery." In "The Lottery" Jackson portrays the average citizens of an average village taking part in an annual sacrifice of one of their own residents. When the story was published in the New Yorker magazine in 1948, reader response was tremendous. People were horrified by the story and wrote to express their disgust that a tale containing a pointless, arbitrary, violent sacrifice had been allowed to be published. Some also called to see where the town was so that they could go and watch the lottery. It is this last behavior, the need to feel a part of the gruesomeness that exists in American society, that Jackson so skillfully depicts in "The Lottery."
Take for instance the recent fascination with television talk shows. On these programs we learn more than we want to about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional individuals, murder and mayhem. Even our print media proclaims our atrocities toward one another each day on their front pages. Yet Jackson wrote "The Lottery" in 1948-before gang violence, teen suicides, the threat of nuclear war, and handgun Crimes reached epidemic proportions. Was Jackson looking into the future of the American society?
It has been noted that Jackson saw herself as a psychic even as a young girl. She had read more than her fair share of books dealing with witchcraft and the occult and wrote about the Salem witch trials. But, perhaps more than having clairvoyant powers, Jackson had an ability to see our present in our past. She understood that barbaric rituals once used to sustain the community in a harsh environment were often continued to enact a sense of unity and history within the community, even if they were no longer necessary.
Geoffrey Wolff, in an article in The New Leader, sees the communal bond as coming from a sort of democratic misconduct. He writes, "The story seems perfectly true. A sense of community is won at a price, and communal guilt and fear are seen as more binding than communal love." Certainly Jackson's story could be true. From the exactness of the June 27th date in the first line to the myriad details of the environment and its inhabitants, one can picture herself or himself in similar surroundings. Most of us have "stood together. . . [and] greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip" before joining the rest of our family at a social gathering. Jackson even lets us know the habits of Mr. Summers and how he "was very good at all this, in his clean white shirt and blue jeans."' We know the conversations of "planting and rain, tractors and taxes" of the men and the mundane housekeeping details of the women. Through these details Jackson allows us to identify with the town's lottery day, and to feel as if we are a part of their community.
We also see the fear of the townspeople. We see it in the way the summer vacation's "liberty sat uneasily on most" of the schoolchildren, and again in the uneasy hesitation before Mr. Martin and his son Baxter volunteer to help Mr. Summers stir the papers. The fear becomes more noticeable during the drawing when people were "wetting their lips, not looking around" and holding "the small folded papers in their large hands, turning them over and over nervously."' The fear is blatantly apparent once the Hutchinson family had been chosen and Nancy's friends "breathed heavily as she went forward." But, what we do not see is a sense of guilt in the townspeople to which Wolfe refers. Instead, we see Mr. Summers teaching Davy, the youngest of the Hutchinsons, how to participate in the ritual. We see the exuberantly grateful behavior of Nancy and Bill Jr., the other Hutchinson children, as they "both beamed and laughed, turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads." They are certainly old enough to know that one from their family will be chosen as the sacrificial lamb, yet...
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