Lottery and The Most Dangerous Game at essay

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Lottery" and "The Most Dangerous Game"

At first glance, the slow tension built up in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" seems to mark the story as wholly distinct from the over-the-top adventure in Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," but closer examination reveals a number of points in which the two tales seem to engage in a shared discourse regarding the value of human life. "The Lottery" features an ostensibly civil society maintained through a brutal, retrograde ritual of collective murder, and "The Most Dangerous Game" chronicles the exploits of a retired general hunting his most recent (human) quarry. By examining the extent to which the characters in either story do or do not value human life and the implications this has for the larger society in which they live, one may understand the way in which all forms of governance, whether aristocratic or egalitarian, authoritarian or democratic, ultimately rely on a devaluing of human life and autonomy in the service of power.

The village of "The Lottery" is undoubtedly intended to evoke images of a nearly-ideal community in the northeastern United States, so that the lottery itself may be taken as an intpretation of American democracy. A number of textual details support this intepretation, because although the location and time period of the story are never explicitly mentioned, the fact that "the town has a population of about 300 […] farming seems to be the normal way of making a living [….] most of the names are Anglo-Saxon," and "the land yields an abundance of stones [….] seems to point to New England as the locale of the story" (Yarmove 242). Similarly, the clothing and technology mentioned, such as tractors and blue jeans, seems to suggest that the story takes place near the time of its writing in the middle of the twentieth century (Jackson). The effect is to create a picture of peaceful Americana that lulls the reader into a comfortable complacency, because even as the lottery begins, the villagers casually joke with each other (Jackson). The story wants an American reader to feel comfortable, because the climatic terror of the story comes from the violent disruption of this comfort.

It is important to note that the story almost certainly takes twentieth-century American democracy as its target, because certain textual details have led critics to view "The Lottery" in ways that ultimately cloud the critical, ideological work done by the story, because the lottery admittedly bears some similarities to certain religious practices. For example, Nayef Ali Al-Joulan sees "The Lottery" as reflecting "Jackson's vague, confused, superficial and stereotypical perception of Islam and Islamic rituals due to "the symbolic black-box [seen as a stand-in for the Kaaba in Mecca], stoning, the status of women, the fixed annual date(s) of the lottery, and the act of calling the participants in the lottery five times," whereas Amy Griffin views the story as a reiteration of the archetypal scapegoat seen in the Judeo-Christian heritage (Al-Joulan 29, Griffin 44). While the belief that a "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon" represents the same kind of superstition that is the foundation of all religion, the actual ritual of the lottery is far more akin to a civic process rather than a religious one (Jackson). In fact, the lottery is only run by Mr. Summers because he has "time and energy to devote to civic activities" such as "squares dances" and "the teen club" (Jackson). This is not to suggest that there is no religious content in "The Lottery," but rather to argue that the more interesting target is democracy (especially because it is neither new nor surprising to suggest that religion devalues human life through the ritualization and legitimation of murder).

The story's condemnation of the violent potential inherent in democracy comes when Mrs. Hutchinson is finally attacked. Her death is not instigated by a single person, because "such action would be deemed 'murder'" (Griffin 45). Instead, the villagers all stone her together, dissipating the guilt across society in much the same way that the state-sanctioned murder of individuals is "legitimized" because twelve people decide that someone needs to die, either out of a desire for collective revenge or in the foolhardy assumption that official violence precludes individual violence. Thus, "The Lottery" serves as a condemnation of the ethical "safety" offered by democracy; because everyone participates, or at least has the opportunity to participate, no one is responsible for his or her individual actions. This is why a historical reading of "The Lottery" leads one to read the story as a warning "that despite assurances during the late 1940s that 'it couldn't happen here,' a microcosmal holocaust occurs in this story and, by extension, may happen anyplace in contemporary America" (Yarmove 242). Of course, one need not invoke the specter of Nazis to see how the horror of "The Lottery" applies to American society, because the continued use of a death penalty that is disproportionately applied to blacks is precisely the kind of distributed, "democratic" holocaust portrayed in the story, except instead of a bountiful harvest, this sacrifice is performed in the name of "less crime."

Where "The Lottery" uses spacial and temporal ambiguity in order to make its horror more relevant to the American reader, "The Most Dangerous Game" uses a clear time and space as a means of making its ideological argument, an argument that is not particularly distinct from "The Lottery" except in the particular form of governance it chooses to lambast. Crucially, the story pits an American hunter against a Cossack aristocrat, and while a first impression of these characters might lead one to believe that "the story does not involve much complexity of consciousness" due to the fact that it appears to support a dichotomy of the noble, democratic American vs. deranged, authoritarian foreigner, a close look at the conclusion of the story reveals quite the opposite (Welsh 134). The story reveals that Rainsford, far from representing an idealized American free from the terrible violence inherent in the "other" represented by General Zaroff, is just as susceptible to power as any aristocrat. Thus, where "The Lottery" investigates the potential for collective violence as a result of democratic governance, "The Most Dangerous Game" investigates the potential for violence as a result of oligarchic governance.

The time and place of "The Most Dangerous Game" is established through the details of Rainsford's disastrous journey to Brazil coupled with Zaroff's mention of "the debacle in Russia" which made it "imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay," meaning the Russian Revolution in 1917 (Connell).The effect is to place the events of the story in as exotic and uncanny environment as possible, such that Zaroff and the life he leads on his island seem entirely alien to the reader. Where "The Lottery" uses ambiguity in order to make its time and place unsettling familiar to the American reader, "The Most Dangerous Game" is explicit in describing its setting as a means of demonstrating its alien nature, thus making Rainsford's transformation all the more shocking.

The ideological contrast in "The Most Dangerous Game" is clearly evident, because whereas "Rainsford is an open and gregarious fellow, a friendly American 'democrat with a small d,'" Zaroff is "a displaced member of the old Russian aristocracy who has adamantly refused to accept the changing world around him" (Thompson 87). Thus, at the outset of the story one sees the two as diametrically opposed characters, with Zaroff constituting a "darker image of what Rainsford could have become had he not been raised in democratic fashion" (Thompson 87). Far from arguing that Rainsford's American, democratic upbringing saves him from perpetuating the kind of violence Zaroff engages in, however, the story seems to suggest that anyone is capable of said violence so long as he is given the means to do so, in much the same way that the once-jovial villagers of "The Lottery" are able to immediately switch into a murderous mob once their target has been identified.

The final line of "The Most Dangerous Game" reveals the crux of the story's argument, because it is only in these final words that the reader realizes the transformation Rainsford has undergone. Following Rainsford and Zaroff's decision to fight and Zaroff's proclamation that "one of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds" while "the other will sleep in this very excellent bed," the story concludes by noting that "he had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided" (Connell). Thus, far from defeating the murderous oligarch thanks to his American background, Rainsford essentially becomes him by proving himself to be the better killer, revealing that the dichotomy set up at the beginning of the story is merely a pretense; rather, Rainsford had simply not yet been given the opportunity to fulfill his violent potential, but when he does, he realizes that he has never experienced something better.

Comparing and contrasting Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" with Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" reveals the propensity for violence inherent…[continue]

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