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LindaHilton

Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

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The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson

Memory is a strange thing.

 

I'm not absolutely positive I've ever actually read Shirley Jackson's The Lottery.  I did read We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

The Lottery was read to our class in sixth or seventh grade, probably by the school librarian, Mrs. Mosely.  This would have been sometime around 1959-1961.  Mrs. Mosely was English, and I loved her accent.  She might have been a war bride, or maybe not.  In my memory she was quite old, perhaps as old as my grandparents, who would have been in their 50s at the time.  Mrs. Mosely had pierced ears.

 

The basic plot of the story -- a small town's rather primitive social ritual -- stayed with me enough that I have always known how it ended.  But I had forgotten many of the details.  It's not a very long story; there's a free PDF version that's only eight pages. 

 

But when I opened that PDF file, I couldn't start reading right away.  After all, I knew how the story ended and I wasn't sure I wanted to put myself through that stress.   By the time I had skimmed through the first page and taken note of certain details that might be symbolic and significant but might not be, I realized I wasn't so much interested in reading the story itself as I was interested in reading about it.

 

I began with the basics.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lottery confirmed my initial memory of the plot as well as my suspicions about those symbolic details.  Yes, Jackson had taken great care to drop hints and commentary right in the text, using words and names and phrases and imagery to convey more than what they appear to convey.

 

But what did it all mean?

 

I wasn't alone in asking that question.

 

from the Wikipedia article:

 

Many readers demanded an explanation of the situation 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.

 

I found that explanation insufficient.  I wondered, these almost 67 years after publication of The Lottery, if there wasn't more to it than that.

 

Was Jackson trying to show not just "general inhumanity," but a specific kind of inhumanity?  Was she also trying to show how complicit each of us is in that inhumanity, even those of us who are victims of it? 

 

What The Lottery portrays is bullying.  The powerful, in order to maintain their power, select a victim and proceed, with lofty justifications, to destroy that victim.  The destruction itself is cloaked in a context that appears to have nothing whatever to do with the bullies and their need for dominance: ensuring a bountiful harvest, defending free speech, even the quintessentially ironic protecting of victims of bullying.

 

Some could have been victims but by the luck of the draw aren't.  One would think they would challenge the system, challenge the power that could victimize them next, but they don't.

 

Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. "You didn't give him time

enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn't fair!"

 

"Be a good sport, Tessie." Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, "All of us took the same chance."

 

"Shut up, Tessie," Bill Hutchinson said.

 

(from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.)

 

How often have we been told not to rock the boat, not to make waves, to sit down and shut up?  How many times have we seen victims blamed for their victimization? 

 

How many times have you stood up to a bully?  How many times have you stood by when someone else was bullied?

 

I'm not talking about a negative book review.  I'm talking about the kind of threats and intimidation and actions that have serious and immediate effects on people's lives.  A negative book review is an opinion.  It is not a threat; the reviewer does not have the power to destroy the writer's career.  (If the writing is that bad, then the writer probably doesn't have any career to be destroyed; if the writing is good, one bad review won't destroy it.)  I'm talking about threats of physical violence.  I'm talking about threats to carpet bomb an author's books with negative ratings that have nothing to do with the book or the writing and everything to do with maintaining or establishing (or sucking up to) power.  I'm talking about threats of financial bullying that can affect an author's livelihood in ways a mere review can't.

 

As I wrote in a comment on another post, I am in a bullying situation in real life right now.  I know no one will stand up with or for me.  I know that I am virtually powerless to do anything to stop what is happening to me.  I do not have the resources the bully has, not financial resources, not social resources.  I have tried as best I know how to stand up to this bully, but even as I do so, I know that I don't have a chance.

 

The villagers of The Lottery had a chance.  They just didn't take it.