American Literature’s most famous mob scene has turned 70.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was first published (to no shortage of public outcry) in The New Yorker back in 1948. In the story, the inhabitants of a seemingly-idyllic village (based on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson resided at the time) gather every June 27th for the titular ritual. The lottery (technically a double drawing, selecting first a local family and then a specific member of that household) is well-woven into the civic fabric; the administering official, Mr. Summers, similarly presides over “the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program.” But while all this sounds wholesome enough, there is a nervous tension running through the crowd, and the subsequent freak-out by Tess Hutchinson after she draws the slip of paper marked with a black spot (shades of Billy Bones in Treasure Island) has nothing to do with excitement over sudden enrichment. With a devious twist, Jackson reveals that this lottery delivers an unfortunate reward: this isn’t some Win-for-Life drawing, but rather Lose-Your-Life. The townspeople proceed to set upon the protesting Tess (whose first name and surname allude to fictional and historical female sufferers of persecution, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Anne Hutchinson) and begin the stunning act of stoning her to death.
This story of designated scapegoating–of communal cohesion through arbitrary Othering–paints a bloody underbelly onto modern society, calling the very notion of “civilization” into question. Jackson’s slice of American Gothic also exposes the fragility of the family bond: having drawn the black spot, the cowardly Tess promptly tries to serve up her own children as the recipients of the impending handout.
There are distinct religious overtones to “The Lottery,” as the public stoning of a branded deviant proves a most Old-Testament form of punishment. Disconcerting hints of paganism are also offered: these latter-day Druids of the New World appear to engage in murderous sacrifice (on a date close to the summer solstice) in the belief that it will ensure a bountiful harvest. As Old Man Warner memorably recites, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
Jackson depicts the quintessential mob, here wielding stones instead of torches and pitchforks, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call the story’s characters angry villagers. They execute their grim business with a chilling cold-bloodedness. It is this blind allegiance to custom, the casual and callous nature of such resort to violence, that haunts the reader long after the initial shock of the ending wears off, and causes the dark themes of Jackson’s story to resonate to this day.