One of the most famous American short stories of the 20th Century is Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. Many different versions of this story have been done but only Jackson's version holds the stark and straight-forward message that was clear throughout the text. Get help from Paper Masters on understanding what Jackson was trying to say within her short story.
In a small New England town, a lottery is held each June to determine which member of the community will be sacrificed to bring forth new life, in the form of a bountiful crop. Shirley Jackson's story The Lottery begins innocently enough, describing June 27th as "clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day".
There is nothing normal otherwise, for this is the day one person is chosen to die in a grotesque ritual that has been part of town life for many years. This is a throwback to ancient cultures, which believed that growing crops represented a life cycle, and that a death represented continuing life. By sacrificing one person, that life cycle would continue and enrich the survivors.
An outstanding literature essay on The Lottery will illustrate the following:
- An otherwise "normal" town becomes the focal point, once a year, for a bizarre and deadly ritual that ends up in the death of one of their own.
- Jackson was trying to say that society in general holds on to meaningless rituals and traditions that represent our need for survival.
- Another theme that Jackson is trying to illustrate is that individuals within society have a strong need to belong or be one of the group.
In the village of The Lottery, not everything is as it seems. On the surface, the village and its three hundred inhabitants gather for an annual lottery under a clear and sunny sky. Flowers blossom and the grass is green. Children are talking, gathering stones or being coy as they gather for the lottery, too. Shirley Jackson creates an atmosphere of lighthearted anticipation for the day's events: "There was a great deal of fussing to be done before Mr. Summers declared the lottery open". In stark contrast to this bucolic setting is the underlying and murderous reality of the lottery itself. Steeped in tradition, the lottery is conducted in order to pick one villager to be stoned to death by the rest. This is a lottery where the winner is actually the loser. Under the clear sky of summer, one man or woman or child will die in a sacrificial act to insure better crops for the remaining villagers.
Under the façade of neighborliness lies the reality: one neighbor will die within the hour. While the men talk about crops or farming tools, the women gossip. Families slowly drift together. As they wait for the lottery to begin, "their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed". Mr. Summers, for example, speaks from his perfunctory role as lottery conductor but not as a real, caring person. "Although Mr. Summersknew the answer perfectly well, it was the business of the official of the lottery to ask such questions formally". Tess Hutchinson arrives late because she "clean forgot what day it was". Her conversation conceals the fact that she knows that she has just as good a chance of dying that day as anyone else in town.
In an atmosphere of formality and an acceptance of the fact that "There's always been a lottery", the process begins. The façade of neighborliness is stripped away as the Hutchinson family begins to open their final lottery papers. When the children realize they won't be the ones to die, they "both beamed and laughed, turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads". The reader can see that familial ties as well as neighborly ties are easily broken in this village and at the heart of the breakdown is the lottery itself. On this day of the lottery, what appears to be a gathering of families is really a gathering of murderers who hide their evil secret even from themselves under a mask of denial. In this village, the villager who gives little Davy Hutchinson some stones to throw at his own mother can rest assured that he is just doing his neighborly duty. In this village, what is on the surface only masks what is hidden beneath.