An Analysis of "Luck" in "The Lottery" and "The Rocking Horse Winner"
Both Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and DH Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner" are stories about luck -- and yet in both stories that "luck" turns out to be rather unfortunate -- or, ironically, "unlucky." This paper will examine the concept of luck in both "The Lottery" and "The Rocking Horse Winner" and show how in both narratives there is something dark and malevolent at the heart.
"Luck" in Jackson's "The Lottery" is not quite what it seems, and at first the reader is led to believe that "winning" is something good. However, as the narrative approaches its conclusion and the sorrow of the "winner" becomes more and more pronounced, Mrs. Hutchinson's friends turn away from her as though she was cursed, and indeed Fate seems to be saying so. But why?
In a sense, the lottery Mrs. Hutchinson (and all those before her) has won is merely a representation of the horror in human nature. The old world, of course, called it Original Sin, but the new Protestant world (utopian in vision), attempts in many different ways to flee this sense of sin and corruption. Jackson's "Lottery" simply brings the sin and horror to the surface and institutionalizes it: all must participate in the lottery -- no one may abstain. Jackson's own critique of her story, in "On the Morning of June 28th," tells us of the reception she received after the story was published -- and it is similar to Mrs. Hutchinson's reception after she has "won" the lottery: "Casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn't speaking to me" (Jackson qtd in Bloom 36). It appears that drawing attention to the horror at the heart of human nature is as bad as being horrible oneself.
Jackson takes up the theme of tainted souls in "The Lottery" -- just as she does in her novels, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Although she herself resists categorization and refused to "explain" the meaning of her works (offering up to the public the simple, humble excuse, "Well, it's really just a story"), the perceptive reader cannot fail to recognize Jackson's own experience as "the other" and an "outsider" to the New England literary tradition that ranges from Hawthorne to Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun," another tale about a "cloistered" female outsider, who prefers her solitude to the neighborly company of her New England surroundings (Ward 1995).
What exactly all of this says about New England's heritage is of the essence -- and that essence is also seen in DH Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner" -- which is a tale about two obsessions -- one, the obsession of love (the boy Paul's for his mother) and two, the obsession of materialism (Paul's mother's for money). But we will get to Lawrence's story shortly. First, let us continue with Jackson's.
Jackson's "The Lottery" can be summed up by the simple description of her morning reading, which greatly reflects the humor with which she looked upon the strangeness of the world:
I took my coffee into the dining room and settled down with the morning paper. A woman in New York had had twins in a taxi. A woman in Ohio had just had her seventeenth child. A twelve-year-old girl in Mexico had given birth to a thirteen-pound boy. The lead article on the woman's page was about how to adjust the older child to the new baby. I finally found an account of an axe murder on page seventeen, and held my coffee cup up to my face to see if the steam might revive me. (Jackson, The Magic 518-19)
The unmistakable satisfaction Jackson takes in balancing out several anecdotes of birth and life with a gruesome narrative of murder and death shows a depth of personality that is not always recognized as such. The fact is that Jackson is a descendent of the literary gothic masters (and she could easily be lumped with another gothic contemporary -- the southern Catholic Flannery O'Connor, who just as boldly and satirically used violence in her stories to establish a kind of religious ethos that Puritanism appeared to block).
As Darryl Hattenhauer (2003) notes, there is something explicitly biblical in Jackson's work. The characters in "The Lottery" are obsessed with their lottery, which does not reward the winner with money -- on the contrary, and ironically, it Her fantasies take on biblical proportions: What may seem like a gruesome fascination with sociopathy is actually more in tune with the gothic/biblical fascination of Flannery O'Connor: every member of society is tainted with sin and unless it is recognized the danger of God's justice/punishment hangs over one and all. One of O'Connor's biblical excerpts conveys as much: "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away" (O'Connor 3).
From such a perspective, Jackson's "The Lottery" takes on new dimensions. A tale of meaningless, ritualistic stoning, "The Lottery" is the personification of the Christian parable inverted: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" becomes trampled upon in Jackson's short story, in which all the townspeople draw straws to see who will be stoned this week.
As Paula Gurran (1999) states, Jackson "suffered from intense anxiety and depression and felt persecuted by the citizens of the small Vermont town in which she lived." The tale could easily be read as Jackson's own clear-sighted and objective satire of New England society: pompous, Pharisaical, holy and virtuous on the outside; dark, sinister, judging on the inside. Jackson perceives that such affliction is a condition of all humanity, and yet it does not keep many from doing exactly what Christ warned against:
"It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. "It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her. (Jackson, "The Lottery" 228).
The plight of Mrs. Hutchinson is all too common: a willing participant in the lottery up till now (when she was the one who had stones in her hands -- not the one being stoned), she realizes too late the implications of what they have all been doing. By stoning (judging) others, they risk being stoned (judged) themselves.
D.H. Lawrence's "Rocking Horse Winner" is also a tale of a kind of lottery of materialism. The symbol of the rocky horse takes on a double meaning just as the boy Paul is catapulted to action by his mother's love of money and his love for his mother. As W.D. Snodgrass states, "Though the reach of the symbol is overwhelming, in some sense the story is 'about' its literal, narrative level: the life of the family that chooses money instead of some more stable value, that takes money as its nexus of affection" (191). Just as the villagers do in "The Lottery," the family in the "Rocking Horse Winner" is consumed by the notion of "luck," not realizing that their "bad luck" is really the result of the choices they make. Instead of valuing what they have, they always want more -- at least, such can be said for the parents. For Paul, we might say that he does value what he has and it is precisely because he values it so highly that dies trying to supply his mother with the "more and more" money for which she whispers.
Yet, there is in "Rocking Horse Winner" a sense of love that does not come through in "The Lottery." John Clayton states that "Lawrence longed for rebirth for himself,…