Gender criticism of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson, the famous American writer, was born on December 14, 1919 in San Francisco. In 1930, a year before she attended Burlingame High School, Shirley began writing poetry and short stories. But it was in 1948 that her greatest success was achieved. The publication of the short story, “The Lottery”, brought fame, as well as letters from readers all over the country. But more often there were abusive letters from people who did not understand her motives or what she was trying to do. A year later a book entitled, “The Lottery”, was published containing an assortment of short stories including “The Lottery.” The critics by that time, had decided that Shirely Jackson was a writer of much talent and uniqueness. This short story takes a deeper look at human nature by displaying at least three typical attitudes of man while living and interacting in a society. These attitudes include man’s unwillingness to accept the consequences of societal actions, man’s tendency to turn against his neighbor if he or she is dubbed an outcast, and man’s acceptance of a tradition that may be immoral simply because he has always done so.
As in the case of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, the community inherits the evil of the yearly lottery. The villagers, however, are only afraid of the unknown; to them, evil is whatever would happen if the lottery was not successfully carried out. Year after year after year for as long as the villagers can remember, there has been an annual lottery. The “benefit” behind the lottery seems to be a ritualistic cleansing of the village from its sins. The villager chosen at random in the drawing inherits from the community all of the evils of the past year, and then is stoned to death. Although to others this practice seems barbaric, to them it is a necessary practice which must be continued from year to year. What the villagers fail to recognize is that by seeming to wash away their sins by the stoning, they are in fact doing nothing but creating sins for themselves.
In “The Lottery” adults from the village have accepted the way the system works, and in turn have passed it along. Little children view their parents as infallible and in turn accept what is passed down to them. The children from the village have listened and almost take delight in the practice. Although they have no comprehension as to the reasons that the lottery exists, they believe in the practice. Children put faith into stories, and the lottery is an example of that. A person needs to be killed by stones every year, or something bad will happen. The bad “something” does not even need to be known by the children in order to comply, merely the threat of the bad “something”. Since it is by example that these children are taught, it is evident that evil in society is learned and not inborn. Given that evil is learned, then, so in turn are the practices of manifesting them. The lottery comes every year, and as Old Man Warner stated, “There’s always been a lottery (Jackson 297).”
It is notable that the administrator of this affair is named Mr. Summers, and his helper is Mr. Graves. This choice of names represents the life cycle completely: life from the summer sun, and death ends up in the grave. This life cycle becomes entwined in the beliefs of a society and the practices remain and are taught, although the first connotations of the practices have been lost. Over time the villagers have not any idea about exactly why they stone a fellow member of their society, but they just know that it has to be done and that it will. When societies form, the basis for maintaining those societies is founded. The village in “The Lottery” is no different. Everybody knows his or her station in life, whether it be a farmer or mailman, and everybody accepts it. The general cold-bloodedness that each member of the community extends to everyone else is also cruelly accepted. During the lottery, any one of the members of the community could be killed. Each and every member knows this, and has known it. The acceptance of the lottery as a means of scapegoating from the time they were children has nullified the general humanity of the populace. Because every villager is aware of the possible consequences of the lottery and has accepted it, the village itself operates on a normal day to day basis, just as any other village or town would. The villagers meet each other with a casual coolness, and are almost excited as to the day’s event. The inhumanity in this is generated by the learned habits of the collected society, not by any inherent human nature. It is interesting to note that human beings have a tendency to lean toward life instincts rather than to death instincts. The life instincts of a population have an effect that seems to indicate an inborn capacity for committing evil, although the instinct just intensifies the learned evil.
When it becomes evident to Tessie Hutchinson that her family has been chosen, it is clear that the life instincts for her family and herself surfaced, even though she is quite familiar with the custom and would have agreed to it had it not the lottery chosen her. Soon it becomes necessary that Tessie’s own life instincts take over those for her family. This demonstrates that even the closest of ties are not match for the superiority of the lottery. After it became apparent that Tessie had indeed been chosen as the scapegoat, sympathies arose from the crowd; however, there was no question that she had to be stoned.
From this point, the life instincts of the other villagers cease to be in the forefront of their thinking, and the desire to cleanse their sins becomes their prime obsession. By destroying what they know to be the living symbol of the evils of what could happen, they destroy all concepts of humanity and overshadow the intimate human bonds that creates and hold a society together. As ages come and go, so does tradition. In essence, the lottery has become a tradition with its origins unknown, but the unknown results of what could happen have kept it alive. The only reason the practice has remained in use is by the desensitizing of the value of human life. For the villagers of Jackson’s “The Lottery”, the practice is almost religion. To change the practice would require the villagers to somehow step outside of their “black box” and examine their world more closely. If just one mother and one father didn’t ingrain the importance of the sacrifice into one of their children, perhaps this would allow that child to not learn what is expected, but to discover the value of life and to bring it into the village.
1. Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1987.