"It isn't fair, it isn't right." These are the last words expressed by the victim in Shirley Jackson's short story 'The Lottery', which provides a unique but shocking perspective of the innate evil that is part of human nature. The story starts off by describing a town scene that could not be more commonplace or predictable. The descriptions provided by Jackson elicit a sense of familiarity and normalcy that convince the reader that the happenings of the story are possible and maybe even probable. The lottery in the story is seen as just another community event coordinated by Mr. Summers, along with "the square dances, the teen club, [and the] Halloween program." The tradition and routine of the lottery is indicated through the way that "the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner."
The predictable, commonplace quality of the story takes a drastic turn at the end, as the 'winner' of the lottery is stoned to death by fellow members of her community. This change in tone and contrast in character demeanour creates a shock that leaves the reader to retrospectively put together the pieces of the story in order to construct a comprehension of its meaning. What exactly is the meaning of this story? Jackson herself declined any comment when asked by The New Yorker to provide an explanatory response to countless letters from readers unable to understand the meaning of the story (Jackson, 1968). The meaning of this story lies in an understanding of its literary structure, its underlying anthropological message, as well as its extensive use of symbolism. Through an analysis of these factors, the reader is able to deduce meaning from this unique literary work.
The readers of 'The Lottery' may be forever changed by the story, which forces a perspective onto readers through its unconventional structure. The story ends as the first stone is cast onto the victim, Mrs. Hutchinson, without an overt statement regarding morality and humanity's need to turn aside knowledge of imminent death by causing the death of a victim (Janeway, 1966). The story's impact alone elicits an emotional and moral response in the reader implicitly rather than explicitly.
The story begins with a plausible description of normal community reality that extends to the reader's logical grasp and results in familiar insights and emotions (Janeway, 1966). A strong sense of friendship, trust and community is created through Jackson's depiction of an orderly town with pleasant weather (Wolff, 1968) and grass that is "richly green." However, this sense of community is costly, and "communal guilt and fear are seen as more binding than communal love (Wolff, 1968)." Although the ritual sacrifice is conducted in an ordered, democratic manner, this normalcy turns as Jackson dramatically shifts from a world of plausibility to a world of horror, which leaves the reader with a contrast that demands a re-evaluation of what constitutes reality and fantasy.
The ending of the story produces a frightful shock in readers, which is created through a method of story development utilized by Jackson (Heilman, 1950). Heilman (1950) describes this method:
Up to the last six paragraphs the story is written in a manner of realistic transcript of small-town experience: the day is a special one, true, but the occasion is familiar, and for the most part the people are presented as going through a well-known routine ....Things are easily, simply told as if in a factual chronicle ....Suddenly, in the midst of this ordinary, matter-of-fact environment, there occurs a terrifyingly cruel action, official, accepted, yet for the reader mysterious and unexplained .It is as if ordinary life had suddenly ceased and were replaced, without warning ... By some horrifying nightmare.
This "terrifyingly cruel action" was of course the ritual killing of Mrs. Hutchinson. The shock created by the ending is enhanced by the narrative style used by Jackson, that does not indicate that anything unusual is happening (Heilman, 1950).
The story, with its flat character development and simple plot has a parable-like quality in which the reader does not know where or in what time the story takes place, and are only given sufficient information to see the universality and generality of the human problem in focus (Parks, 1978). Many of the characters are typical, including Old Man Warner, who is the staunchest advocate of the lottery, Mr. Hutchinson, who represents the average, typical citizen, and Mrs. Delacroix, who is the most friendly to the future victim before the lottery, but attacks the victim most ferociously after the lottery (Lainhoff, 1954). With this parable-like structure, which is reminiscent of the structure and style used in many parables and stories of the bible, Jackson has the ability to address timeless issues through this parable-like structure, which acts as a catalyst for discussion and debate across the ages (Carpenter, 1982). Brooks and Warren (1959) expressed how 'The Lottery' resembles a fable in its flat characters that are all simply variations on the average, ordinary human being, as well as the "fantastic nature of the plot." However, unlike a fable, 'The Lottery' does not conclude with a distinct moral lesson, and instead avoids any particular overt meaning (Brooks and Warren, 1959).
A parable presents an idea or truth through the use of a simple narrative in which the persons and events of the story are "understood as being directly equivalent to terms involved in the statement of the truth (Brooks and Warren, 1959)." However, Brooks and Warren (1959) argue that 'The Lottery' is not a "naked parable," in that Jackson has supplied vivid details to enhance the believability of the village and its happenings, and she also ensured flexibility of interpretation for the reader.
Jackson needed to make all elements leading up to the ending commonplace, sensible, plausible, and down-to-earth in order for the horrific ending to have the impacting effect that it does (Brooks and Warren, 1959). According to Brooks and Warren (1959), making the context of the happening seem credible has two effects. First, it will increase the shock experienced by readers when they suddenly realize what is happening in the story. Also, it helps the readers to ultimately believe that what happens in the story is entirely possible, and even probable. Furthermore, the pleasant, rosy atmosphere of the scene provides an adequate counterbalance to the horrific ending. Brooks and Warren (1959) state that the meaning of the story implied by Jackson involves the "awful doubleness of the human spirit -- a doubleness that expresses itself in the blended good neighborliness and cruelty of the community's actions." This dichotomy presented reflects the latent presence of evil in all of humanity.
The author asserts through the story that evil exists in everyone, and that it has the potential of being unleashed through the practice of tradition. This was a belief about life held by the author, and through this story she succeeded in extending this feeling onto the readers (Hicks, 1966). The shocking ending to the story is not realistic, but is in fact symbolic, and the method of the story without notice, suddenly shifts drastically from realism to symbolism (Heilman, 1950). Heilman (1950) questions whether the effect of shock caused by the ending appropriately serves the story's symbolic intention, and concludes that the symbolic intention of the story could have been clarified earlier so that the reader could seek symbolic meaning throughout the story rather than only retrospectively at the end. However, one could argue that the emotions elicited by the story would not be as powerful or impacting if the symbolism was salient throughout.
Nebeker (1974) describes how 'The Lottery' is in fact two thematic stories meshed into one piece of fiction. The obvious story is the one represented by the literal interpretation, where members of a small community gather annually to determine through a lottery, who would be a victim of the traditional sacrifice. This level causes the reader to "recoil in horror," and recognize the dichotomy of human nature represented in the story (Nebeker, 1974). This is the level that causes immediate emotional effects. The other story underlies this obvious, literal interpretation, and it necessitates an understanding of the symbolic intentions of the author. Jackson skilfully uses structure and symbolism to represent the past of humanity, as well as a prognosis for the future of humanity. The reader discovers that the lottery ritual actually generates a type of cruelty that is no way inherent to humans, but is in fact due to unaltered and unquestioned tradition. Moreover, man is not acting due to any innate savagery, but according to traditions, which could be changed if the community chose to.
Symbolism exists throughout the story, but is especially obvious in the characters' names. Summers, is the appropriate leader of the lottery, since it falls at the end of…