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Lottery Information

The Lottery

"The Lottery" is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. The story depicts an average American community where a sacrificial victim is chosen annually in a public lottery. The only change The New Yorker made to Jackson's original manuscript was to change the date in the story to coincide with the date of publication.

Controversy

Controversy surrounding the story brought an avalanche of mail plus phone calls and hundreds of cancelled subscriptions. Rarely mentioned in essays and discussions of this story is the fact that, during the late 1940s, crowds gathered at town squares in rural communities across the country to participate in weekly cash-prize lotteries, calculated by city councils to drum up business for local merchants. Such a lottery was held on the lawn of the courthouse square in Lexington, Mississippi in the post-World War II years, and New Yorker subscribers who had witnessed similar smalltown gatherings perhaps began reading "The Lottery" with a notion that the story was a fictionalization of those cash drawings.

Many readers demanded an explanation of the situation described in the story, and a month after the initial publication, Shirley Jackson responded in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 22, 1948): "Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Jackson lived in Bennington, Vermont, and her comment reveals she had Bennington in mind when she wrote "The Lottery."

In a 1960 lecture (printed in her 1968 collection, Come Along with Me), Jackson recalled the hate mail she received in 1948:

One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these the millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker," she wrote sternly; "it 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?"

The New Yorker kept no records of the phone calls, but letters addressed to Jackson were forwarded to her. That summer she began to regularly take home 10 to 12 forwarded letters each day. In addition, she also received weekly packages from The New Yorker containing letters and questions addressed to the magazine or editor Harold Ross, plus carbons of the magazine's responses mailed to letter writers.

Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer--three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even--in one completely mystifying transformation--made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.

Media adaptations

In addition to numerous reprints in magazines, anthologies and textbooks, "The Lottery" has been adapted to radio, live television, a 1953 ballet, a 1969 film short, a TV movie, an opera and a one-act play. An early radio adaptation was heard March 14, 1951 on NBC as an episode of the anthology series, NBC Short Story. Ellen M. Violett wrote the first television adaptation, seen on Albert McCleery's Cameo Theatre (1950-1955). The music video for Man That You Fear by Marilyn Manson is also based on the story.

Larry Yust's short film, The Lottery (1969), produced as part of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's "Short Story Showcase" series, was ranked by the Academic Film Archive "as one of the two bestselling educational films ever". It has an accompanying ten-minute commentary film, "Discussion of 'The Lottery'" by USC English professor Dr. James Durbin. Yust's film adaptation has an atmosphere of naturalism and smalltown authenticity with its shots of pick-up trucks and townspeople in Fellows, California. The film had many school showings in the United States, yet it encountered resistance in Massachusetts. Although the Encyclopaedia Britannica series of classic short stories was approved by the board of Massachusetts Educational Television, Yust's film was eliminated from Massachusetts showings of the series by MET board members.

In The Magic of Shirley Jackson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote about her reaction to the banning of the story in the Union of South Africa: "She felt that they at least understood."

Ancient origins

"Social Evil: The Lottery," a chapter in Lenemaja Friedman's critical study, Shirley Jackson (Twayne, 1975), summarizes the history of sacrificial situations:

One of the ancient practices that modern man deplores as inhumanly evil is the annual sacrifice of a scapegoat or a god-figure for the benefit of the community. Throughout the ages, from ancient Rome and Greece to the more recent occurrences in African countries, sacrifices in the name of a god of vegetation were usual and necessary, the natives felt, for a fertile crop. Somewhere along the way, the sacrifice of a human for the sins of the people—to drive evil from themselves—became linked with the ritual of the vegetation god. In Mexico, among the Aztecs, the victims impersonated the particular gods for a one-year period before being put to death; death came then by the thrust of a knife into the breast and the immediate extraction of the heart. In Athens, each year in May, at the festival of the Thargelia, two victims, a man and a woman, were led out of the city and stoned to death. Death by stoning was one of the accepted and more popular methods of dispatching ceremonial victims.

Synopsis and critical interpretations

Essays reveal diverse interpretations of "The Lottery," from parallels with Jackson's own life to commentary on Nazi Germany, the nature of tradition, the work ethic and inherent evil. Along with social commentary on scapegoating, "The Lottery" shows how society blindly follows tradition, even if the event has no current relevance.

The story contrasts commonplace details of contemporary life with the barbarism of the ritualistic lottery. The setting is a small American town (pop. 300) where the locals display a celebratory mood as they gather on June 27th for their annual lottery. After a person from each family draws a small piece of paper, one slip with a black spot indicates the Hutchinson family has been chosen. When each member of that family draws again to narrow the selection, the family's mother, Tessie Hutchinson, is the final choice. She is then stoned by everyone present, including her own family. The reader does not know the true situation until the first stone strikes Tessie, although the tone becomes darker as her fate draws near.

Mr. Summers, Mr. Graves and Mr. Martin are the village's most important men. With a successful coal business, Summers can be viewed as the leader of this closely knit community where men dominate the women. The women are apparently satisfied with their position in the social ladder. Tessie assents to the idea of the lottery until she is selected as the person to be killed, screaming, "It isn't fair." Except for Mr. and Mrs. Adams' words to Old Man Warner, there is no notion of ending the lottery. It is an ingrained ritual, and the villagers regard industrious labor to be a magical protection against being chosen, as indicated by the Old Man Warner, never selected during his 77 years. When Mrs. Adams tells Warner that some of the other villages have stopped holding the annual lotteries, he replies, "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." He is a traditionalist who views the annual event as a way of life. His comment about those contemplating an end to the lottery: "Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while." Summers, whose opinion takes precedence, doesn’t feel the need to oppose the lottery, and the villagers are all inclined to continue the tradition.

Helen E. Nebeker's essay, "The Lottery: Symbolic Tour de Force" in American Literature (March, 1974) reveals that every major name in the story has a special significance:

By the end of first two paragraphs, Jackson has carefully indicated the season, time of ancient excess and sacrifice, and the stones, most ancient of sacrificial weapons. She has also hinted at larger meanings through name symbology. "Martin," Bobby’s surname, derives from a Middle English word signifying ape or monkey. This, juxtaposed with "Harry Jones" (in all its commonness) and "Dickie Delacroix" (of-the-Cross) urges us to an awareness of the Hairy Ape within us all, veneered by a Christianity as perverted as "Delacroix," vulgarized to "Dellacroy" by the villagers. Horribly, at the end of the story, it will be Mrs. Delacroix, warm and friendly in her natural state, who will select a stone "so large she had to pick it up with both hands" and will encourage her friends to follow suit... "Mr. Adams," at once progenitor and martyr in the Judeo-Christian myth of man, stands with "Mrs. Graves"—the ultimate refuge or escape of all mankind—in the forefront of the crowd.

Felix Oehlshlaeger, in "The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning of Context in The Lottery" (Essays in Literature, 1988), wrote:

The name of Jackson′s victim links her to Anne Hutchinson, whose Antinomian beliefs, found to be heretical by the Puritan hierarchy, resulted in her banishment from Massachusetts in 1638. While Tessie Hutchinson is no spiritual rebel, to be sure, Jackson's allusion to Anne Hutchinson reinforces her suggestions of a rebellion lurking within the women of her imaginary village. Since Tessie Hutchinson is the protagonist of "The Lottery", there is every indication that her name is indeed an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, the American religious dissenter. She was excommunicated despite an unfair trial, while Tessie questions the tradition and correctness of the lottery as well as her humble status as a wife. It might as well be this insubordination that leads to her selection by the lottery and lynching by the angry mob of villagers.

A somewhat similar plot premise was employed by Steve Allen when he updated the past of public lynchings into his futuristic tale, "The Public Hating," published in Bluebook (January, 1955) and first collected in Allen's Fourteen for Tonight (1955). In Allen's story, filled with casual details of ordinary life, a condemned prisoner is executed by the intense, focused hatred expressed by the people surrounding him in Yankee Stadium and millions more watching on television.