Sometimes I look at posts on my town’s Facebook group, and I don’t think that the events of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” are so far-fetched. There’s an incredible amount of aggression and tribalism; people are willing to figuratively stone each other for benign opinions about local restaurants. Once, my partner witnessed an argument turn into a demand to “Come fight me at the Santa Parade.”
Thinking about this was what inspired me to reread this story just now for the first time since eighth grade. Knowing where it’s going doesn’t diminish the impact, but rather makes it ever more horrifying and tense. It kills me that the woman who dies is late to the lottery because she didn’t want to leave dishes in the sink.
But what makes The Lottery such a memorable, chilling story isn’t any aggression displayed by the characters. It’s the matter-of-factness with which they band together and commit murder, then go home and go about their days. An enormous portion of the story is dedicated simply to the clerical and organizational problems of conducting the whole affair.
“…the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”Shirley Jackson, The Lottery
No one is saying, “This is cruel.”
No one is saying, “This is insane.”
No is is saying, “Summon up a teaspoon of empathy for another human being, and don’t act like this.”
That goes for the characters in The Lottery, and for a lot of people on a lot of towns’ Facebook groups.
When I looked up “The Lottery,” I also came across a Mental Floss article of facts about this story. My favorite part was Jackson’s parents’ reaction to the story:
“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t 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?”“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t 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?”Shirley Jackson’s mother, as quoted in 11 Facts of About Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in Mental Floss
It’s both comforting and depressing to see that people in other times were more or less like us.