The Sheepish Nature of Humans and the Absolute Power of the Government in The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

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Government is the manner in which a class, group, state or nation is ruled or controlled. Some governing groups serve to help the people they govern, while others exist simply to suppress the common man and feed those in power. Governments have been the reason that some civilizations have thrived and others have perished. All groups of humans have some form of government, be it simple or complex. The ideas of government are explored in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. Jackson comments on the sheepish nature of people while Vonnegut comments on overpowered governments. Many people live in fear of their governments, feeling as if they will be oppressed or harmed by it. Vonnegut‘s fictional future portrays a world where the US government has complete control over every citizen.

This is best was best displayed in the opening lines of Vonnegut’s work “They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker”. The main goal of the government is to ensure that no one is better than their fellow man through handicaps such as weighted bags, facial mask, and devices that scramble a person’s thoughts. The government rules with an iron fist, ensuring that everyone is in compliance with the rules. This government is not controlled by the people, as evident by the use of devices to suppress free thinking. Vonnegut satirical criticism of big government raises the question to the reader does the government have too much power? Vonnegut’s criticisms may seem far-fetched, but it wasn’t all that unreasonable considering the vents at the time.

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“Harrison Bergeron” was written in 1961, a time where tensions between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were high, as well as espionage and government secrecy. In “The Red Scare, politics, and the Federal Communications Commission” by Susan L. Brinson, Brinson describes how the US used the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to not only spread anti—communism propaganda, but also to spy on the US citizens. It’s no wonder with events like this happening that Vonnegut would write a story such as “Harrison Bergeron”. While Vonnegut focused on criticizing large governments and how they are harmful to the people, Jackson took a much different approach with “The Lottery”. “The Lottery” focuses on a small unnamed town where a small group of people governs themselves. In this town a lottery is held in which the “winner” is stoned to death. With Jackson portraying this society as modern and civilized, it is shocking that they would have such horrific and barbaric practice.

The people of the town are civilized and composed, so why not do away with this horrendous practice This is best answered by Jackson’s character Old Man Warner who when presented with the idea of doing away with the lottery replies “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live [t]hat way for a while”. The people hold the lottery every year simply because it is tradition, there is no questioning of the morals of it nor it’s benefits, this society simply believes that if they abandon this one ritual everything will plunge in to complete and utter chaos. This blind following of government without so much as a second guess is a reflection of the sheepish nature of humans, where the majority of a group will blindly do what they are told as long as it is law or rule.

In 1994 author JayA. Yarmove published her analysis of “The Lottery” focusing on how Jackson creates a dystopian society out of a perfectly civil seeming group of people, and how it compared to the current events of the day. In “Jackson’s The Lottery” Yarmove speaks about how America became smug after WWII stating the common belief that “such atrocities could happen in Nazi Germany but not in the United States. After all, singling out one person, one religion, one race for pejorative treatment–these things just could not happen here”. This bold way of thinking can be juxtaposed with “The Lottery” to explain how the democratic system of government amongst the townspeople failed them. The town is littered with selfish and unthinking people, which allows the blatant and barbaric act that is the lottery to happen. The juxtaposition of “Harrison Bergeron” and “The lottery” creates a sense that government is a horrendous thing that only serves to oppress and hold back the people it governs.

While the subject of these two literary works is quite the opposite in nature. These works do not serve to bash the government, but rather to serve as a warning to people to not follow the government blindly. Both stories feature a martyr of a sort. Harrison Bergeron of “Harrison Bergeron” removes his handicaps for all of the countries to see, displaying what it means to be free, both in the literal and physical sense. “The Lottery” features a non-typical martyr in the form of Tessie Hutchinson. Tessie who originally shows up excited for the lottery finds a quick change in mood once she is selected to be stoned to death. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.”

Tessie’s rebellious and hypocritical cries make a very bold statement about human nature. No one cares about the atrocities going on around them, until they are somehow affected by it. This selfish human nature is best described with a quote by Holocaust survivor Martin N impeller: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak outi Because 1 was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. If people don’t care about the things around them, then they will continue to happen. “The Lottery” and “Harrison Bergeron” are exaggerated examples of what could happen if people do not pay attention to their surroundings, and allow ridiculous laws or atrocities to pass without a say or second guess as to how it could possibly affect them.

If the pattern of sheepish following continues to happen, powerful government machines can arise, much like they did in WWII Germany. If people stand up for the best interest of the public as get involved in government, then the cogs on government machines will cease to turn, putting the people in control. While Jackson’s and Vonnegut’s stories differ in content, they both share a common message. Shirley warns people against blindly following the government and encourages free thinking. Vonnegut‘s story criticizes big governments and also promotes free thinking. These stories help people to stop and consider, could this happen, how could this happen, and how can I stop it from happening.

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The Sheepish Nature of Humans and the Absolute Power of the Government in The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. (2023, Apr 15). Retrieved from

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