Archive for June, 2012

On Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’

Happy Midsummer, everyone! Because my current gig leaves me cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time, I wasn’t able to get this posted up on the Solstice exactly, but it’s close enough. As one of the major points of the circular solar year, high summer is one of those times that’s good for sacrifices and ensuring balance in nature. And so, here’s some analysis on one of my favorite short stories.

(A full-text copy of the story can be found on the Reading Materials page. I highly recommend you read it before continuing.)

For starters, from the first time I read it I’ve always thought that The Lottery was set in Britain, not America—the term ‘village’ is rarely used on this side of the Atlantic to denote a small town—as I find it hard to believe that Americans would have maintained a sacrificial ritual for time out of mind (which is not to say that the sacrifice’s purpose isn’t filled by something like say, our wars) without an existing cultural precedent. On the other hand, Brits (and plenty of other civilized Old World groups) have been stoning, hacking, garroting, burning, and drowning people as sacrifices for time out of mind, or at least about as long as they’ve been growing food, it would seem.
So, it was a nice bit of serendipity that I first came upon Ms. Jackson’s short story right around the time Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man (a particularly well-preserved pair of Irish bog bodies) were discovered, and while I was starting to read Frazier’s The Golden Bough. So when my lit teacher asked, ‘what’s it all about?’, I already had Sacred Kings on the brain and could pretty easily explain agricultural-fertility ritual sacrifices. (The Lottery is not—as the teacher I was subbing for (when I started writing this back in May) had apparently taught her classes—about population control. Which is funny, because it almost could be: as a civilized agricultural society, food surplus is bound to happen, and with that comes increased population growth; more food, more people, more people, more food, rinse, repeat. It’s simple ecology, folks).

Anyway, in preparing to teaching this class, I found this question on a ‘Lottery’ study guide:
“This story satirizes a number of social issues, including the reluctance of people to reject outdated traditions, ideas, rules, laws, and practices. What kinds of traditions, practices, laws, etc. might ‘the lottery’ represent?”

Answer: at its core, the lottery represents nothing less than our culture’s most destructive, long-standing, and unquestioned practice—our civilizational experiment fueled by totalitarian agriculture, and everything that comes along with it. Yes, it might also be applicable to more recent or smaller-scale issues facing society, but look big-picture, folks; don’t expect things to change if you can’t find the bars of your cage.

In the course of the story, one character in particular spoke to me, leaping off the page and spewing ignorant bitterness and hatred for people who live differently. Here’s a good point to recommend the 1969 short adaptation of the story (featuring the film debut of a very young Ed Begley, Jr.!), because their Old Man Warner really brings the character to life. His sharp, crooked teeth and hollow black eyes combined with the extreme close-up framing his face brings something animal-like to his performance:

Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly.

“Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
“Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.””

In the story, the character of Old Man Warner represents the unbroken and unexamined tradition of the lottery, and with it civilization and the ideas held by 99.9% of the population, victims of what Daniel Quinn calls ‘the Great Forgetting’.

Knowing the lottery’s purpose (an agricultural-fertility ritual sacrifice), Old Man Warner assumes that to abandon it would be to automatically return to an uncivilized state.
Furthermore, he somehow intuits that the uncivilized way of life is connected to ‘work’, or rather a lack thereof. In my experience, there seem to be two conflicting views of uncivilized life promoted by pro-civilized folks: that it is either nasty, brutish, and short, in a state of continual worry about where the food’s going to come from, or that it is the complete opposite, and that everybody just lounges around eating jerky all day. Neither is completely correct, however.

Regarding Warner’s quip about chickweed and acorns: these undomesticated foods are simply gatherable edible gifts from Mother Earth not requiring a sacrifice—unlike the civilized foods produced by man’s sweat and toil—and are therefore considered inferior by the biased Warner to the corn of the lottery. And are we surprised? Since the earliest Neolithic rumblings (only much later recorded in Genesis), agriculturalists in Our Culture have been told  that they must work, by the sweat of their brows, for their food; to get things for free—or at the very least, for minimal work—is the way of ‘lazy’ Injuns and other uncivilized folk. And even though the majority of people in our culture no longer directly work the land for their food, this notion is no less true.

To quit the lottery, as Mrs. Adams suggests, is to symbolically quit civilization—which is apparently an idea for young people, like the failed revolutionaries of the 1960s, or the OWS crowd. The big question then becomes—can you quit the lottery without going back to eating acorns?

Old Man Warner’s last lines “It’s not the way it used to be. … People ain’t the way they used to be.” further suggest that his fear of change runs to his very core. In him we see the bluepills who are—in the words of Morpheus—so inert, so hopelessly dependent that they will fight to the death to defend the only way of life they have ever known, because their culture has raised them to think, to believe, to know, that theirs—theirs and no other—is the only right way to live.

Aside from the bitterness of Old Man Warner, one other particular passage piqued my interest:
…at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory. tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse.”

In other words, Jackson has just described the idea of ‘priest’ in its most stripped-down form, presiding as intermediary between this world and the other. As the ritual has been forgotten over the years, the position has become secularized. As I re-read this passage, it occurred to me that having a priest officiating over the Lottery is the only difference between a murder and sacrifice.

According to an interview, Jackson’s original intent in writing the story was simply to set a violent ancient rite in the modern present to “shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
Pointless violence and general inhumanity? Sounds like a spot-on description of the modern, fast-food, disconnected-from-the-Wild-and-each-other, self-medicated-with-technology-and-mindless-violent-entertainment way of life to me.

Finally, it’s interesting to consider the fact Jackson wrote the story in 1948, on the heels of the most senselessly and incomprehensibly destructive period of civilized warfare in human history, and right at the beginning of the period that would see our civilizational experiment (and all of its side-effects) get turned up to 11.