Humanistic Tendencies in “The Lottery”

Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”, aroused much controversy and criticism in 1948, following its debut publication, in the New Yorker. Jackson uses irony and comedy to suggest an underlying evil, hypocrisy, and weakness of human kind.

The story takes place in a small village, where the people are intimate and traditions dominate. A yearly event, called the lottery, is one in which one person in the town is randomly chosen, by a drawing, to be violently stoned by friends and family. The drawing has been around over seventy-seven years and is practiced by every member of the town. The surreal notion of this idea is most evident through Jackson’s tone. Her use of friendly language among the villagers and the presentation of the lottery as an event similar to the square dances and teen gatherings illustrates the lottery as a happy and joyous event. Jackson describes the social atmosphere of the women prior to the drawing: “They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip…” . The lottery is conducted in a particular manner, and with so much anticipation by the villagers, readers expect the lottery to result in something grand and fantastic, like a big prize. It is not until the very end of the story that the reader learns of the winner’s fate: a stoney death, by friends and family. It seems as though Jackson is making a statement regarding hypocrisy and human evil.

The lottery is set in a very unremarkable town, where everyone knows everyone and individuals are not very individual. Families carry the very ordinary names and children act common. Jackson’s portrayal of extreme evil in this ordinary, friendly atmosphere suggests that people are not always as they seem. She implies that underneath the person’s friendliness, there may be lurking an unseen evil.

Though the story does not become injurious until the end, Jackson does in fact foreshadow the idea through Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves. Mr. Summers is the man in charge of the lottery. He prepares the slips of paper to be drawn and he mediates the activity. He is described as a respectable man, joking around with the villagers and carrying on this foreboding event without reservation. “Mr. Summers was very good at all this; in his clean white shirt and blue jeans, with one hand resting carelessly on the black box, he seemed very proper and important as he talked interminably to Mr. Graves and the Martins . The name Summers sums up the mood of the short story as well as the administrator himself, merry, hopeful, and bright. Mr. Summers is the man in front, the representative of the lottery, as his name symbolizes the apparent tone of the event. Mr. Graves, on the other hand, symbolizes the story’s underlying theme and final outcome. Mr. Graves is Mr. Summer’s assistant, always present but not necessarily in the spotlight. The unapparent threat of his name and character foreshadows the wickedness of the ordinary people, that again, is always present but not in the spotlight.

Along with hypocrisy, “The Lottery” presents a weakness in human individuals. This town, having performed such a terrible act for so many years, continues on with the lottery, with no objections or questions asked, and the main purpose being to carry on the tradition. “There’s always been a lottery” , says Old Man Warner. “Nothing but trouble in that,” he says of quitting the event. However, the villagers show some anxiety toward the event. Comments such as “Don’t be nervous Jack” , “Get up there Bill” and Mrs. Delacroix’s holding of her breath as her husband went forward indicate that the people may not be entirely comfortable with the event. Yet everyone still goes along with it. Not a single person openly expresses fear or disgust toward the lottery, but instead feigns enthusiasm. Jackson may be suggesting that many individuals are not strong enough to confront their disapproval, for fear of being rejection or retribution by their peers. Instead they continue to sacrifice their happiness, for the sake of others. The failure of Mr. Summers to replace the black box used for the drawing symbolizes the villagers’ failure to stand up for their beliefs. “Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset tradition as was represented by the
black box.” The box after so many years is “faded and stained” just as the villagers’ view of reality has become tainted and pathetic. An intense fear of change among the people is obvious.

Jackson uses the protagonist, Mrs. Hutchinson, to show an individual consumed by hypocrisy and weakness. Though it is hinted that she attempted to rebel and not show up to the event, Mrs. Hutchinson arrives late, with a nervous excuse of “forgetting what day it was.” It is ironic, that she, who almost stood up for her beliefs, is the one who wins the lottery, and is fated to death. What is shocking but almost predictable is Mrs. Hutchinson’s sudden discharge of her true self. Before the drawing she is friendly with the other women, pretending to be pleased to be present. The very moment that she sees it is her family that draws the black dot, though, her selfishness is evident. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!” . Then she turns on her own daughter. “There’s Don and Eva,” she yelled maliciously, “Make them take their chance!” . She continues to scream about the unfairness of the ritual up until her stoning. Mrs. Hutchinson knew the lottery was wrong, but she never did anything about it. She pretends as much as she could to enjoy it, when she truly hated it all along. Perhaps Jackson is implying that the more artificial and the more hypocritical one is, the more of a target they are. Mrs. Hutchinson was clearly the target of her fears and her unwillingness to stand up for her beliefs.

The situation in “The Lottery” is very evident in our society today. We tend to flock toward nasty gossip and are interested in spite of the privacy of the subjects involved. Whether it is standing on the side to watch a fight, an accident, or hanging someone else out to dry for our short comings, we as Americans seem to have no problem “butting in” where we do not belong. People have no problem remarking on an individuals’ deceitful behavior until it is they who get caught. People have no problem stereotyping people until is they themselves who are stereotyped. It seems as though we sometimes denounce public truths that we know are characteristics of human nature and shift the attention onto someone else instead of admitting to these characteristics in all of us. It is okay as long it is not you portraying such behavior. It is sad and definitely hypocritical, but it happens all the same. I think Shirley Jackson makes this point without blatantly stating it as such. It is the thousands of readers who replied to “The Lottery”, in disapproval and horror that blindly proved Jackson’s theories valid and unknowingly portrayed themselves akin to the villagers in the short story.