Jackson’s story portrays an “average” New England village with “average” citizens engaged in a deadly rite, the annual selection of a sacrificial victim by means of a public lottery, and does so quite deviously: not until well along in the story do we suspect that the “winner” will be stoned to death by the rest of the villagers. One can imagine the average reader of Jackson’s story protesting: But we engage in no such inhuman practices. Why are you accusing us of this?
A survey of what little has been written about “The Lottery” reveals two general critical attitudes: first, that it is about man’s ineradicable primitive aggressively, or what Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren call his “all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat”; second, that it describes man’s victimization by, in Helen Nebeker’s words, “unexamined and unchanging traditions which he could easily change if he only realized their implications.”
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The most powerful man in a village, Mr. Summers, owns the village’s largest business (a coal concern) and is also its major since he has, Jackson writes, more “time and energy [read money and leisure] to devote to civic activities” than others (Jackson p. 292). (Summers’ very name suggests that he has become a man of leisure through his wealth.) Next in line is Mr. Graves, the village’s second most powerful government official-its postmaster. (His name may suggest the gravity of officials.) And beneath Mr. Graves is Mr. Martin, who has the economically advantageous position of being the grocer in a village of three hundred.
These three most powerful men who control the town, economically as well as politically, also happen to administer the lottery. Mr. Summers is its official, sworn in yearly by Mr. Graves (Jackson p. 294). Mr. Graves helps Mr. Summers make up the lottery slips (Jackson p. 293). And Mr. Martin steadies the lottery box as the slips are stirred (p. 292). In the off-season, the lottery box is stored either at their places of business or their residences.
When Bill Hutchinson forces his wife Tessie to open her lottery slip to the crowd, Jackson writes, “It had a black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with [a] heavy pencil in [his] coal-company office” (Jackson p. 301). At the very moment when the lottery’s victim is revealed, Jackson appends a subordinate clause in which we see the blackness (evil) of Mr. Summers’ (coal) business being transferred to the black dot on the lottery slip. At one level at least, evil in Jackson’s text is linked to a disorder, promoted by capitalism, in the material organization of modern society.
Although patriarchy is not a product of capitalism per se, patriarchy in the village does have its capitalist dimension. (New social formations adapt old traditions to their own needs). Women in the village seem to be disenfranchised because male heads of households, as men in the workforce, Provide the link between the broader economy of the village and the economy of the household.
Within these norms, “heads of households” are not simply the oldest males in their immediate families; they are the oldest working males and get their power from their insertion into a larger economy. Women, who have no direct link to the economy as defined by the capitalism-the arena of activity in which labor is exchanged for wages and profits are made-choose in the lottery only in the absence of a “grown,” working male. Women, then, have a distinctly subordinate position in the socio-economic hierarchy of the village.
The lottery’s democratic illusion is an ideological effect that prevents the villagers from criticizing the class structure of their society. But this illusion alone does not account for the full force of the lottery over the village. The lottery also reinforces a village work ethic, which distracts the villagers’ attention from the division of labor that keeps women powerless in their homes, and Mr. Summers powerful in his coal company office.
The final major point of my reading has to do with Jackson’s selection of Tessie Hutchinson as the lottery’s victim/scapegoat. She could have chosen Mr. Dunbar, of course, in order to show us the unconscious connection that the villagers draw between the lottery and their work ethic. But to do so would not have revealed that the lottery actually reinforces a division of labor. Tessie, after all, is a woman whose role as a housewife deprives her of her freedom by forcing her to submit to a husband who gains his power over her by virtue of his place in the workforce. Tessie, however, rebels against her role, and such rebellion is just what the orderly functioning of her society cannot stand.
In stoning Tessie, the villagers treat her like a scapegoat onto which they can project and through with they can “purge”-actually, the term repress is better since the impulse is conserved rather than eliminated-their own temptations to rebel. The only places we can see these rebellious impulses are in Tessie, in Mr. and Mrs. Adams’ suggestion, squelched by Warner, that the lottery might be given up, and in the laughter of the crowd. (The crowd’s nervous laughter is ambivalent: it expresses uncertainty about the validity of the taboos that Tessie breaks.) But ultimately these rebellious impulses are channeled by the lottery and its attendant ideology away from their proper objects-capitalism and capitalist patriarchs-into anger at the rebellious victims of capitalist social organization. Like Tessie, the villagers cannot articulate their rebellion because the massive force of ideology stands in the way.
As dismal as this picture seems, the one thing we ought not to do is make it into proof of the innate depravity of man. The first line of the second paragraph-“The children assembled first, of course” (Jackson p.291)–does not imply that children take a “natural” and primitive joy in stoning people to death. The closer we look at their behavior, the more we realize that they learned it from their parents, whom they imitate in their play. In order to facilitate her reader’s grasp of this point, Jackson has included at least one genuinely innocent child in the story-Davy Hutchinson. When he has to choose his lottery ticket, the adults help him while he looks at them “wonderingly” (Jackson p. 300). And when Tessie is finally to be Stoned, “someone” has to “[give] Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” (Jackson p. 301) to stone his mother. The village makes sure that Davy learns what he is supposed to do before he understands why he does it or the consequences. But this does not mean that he could not learn otherwise.
How do we take such a pessimistic vision of the possibility of social transformation? If anything can be said against “The Lottery,” it is probably that it exaggerates the monolithic character of capitalist Ideological hegemony. No doubt, capitalism has subtle ways of redirecting the frustrations it engenders away from a critique of capitalism itself. Perhaps it is not Jackson’s intention to deny this but to shock her complacent reader with an exaggerated image of the ideological modus operandi of capitalism: accusing those whom it cannot or will not employ of being lazy, promoting “the family” as the essential social unit in order to discourage broader associations and identifications, offering men power over their wives as a consolation for their powerlessness in the labor market, and pitting workers against each other and against the unemployed. It is our fault as readers if our own complacent pessimism makes us read Jackson’s story pessimistically as a parable of man’s innate depravity.
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982), p.291-301.
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