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Commentary on The Lottery Essay


Things Are Not Always What They Seem

The underpinnings of Shirley Jacksons famous post-World War II story The Lottery demonstrate that the work is far greater than the sum of its parts. The date of the lottery, its location, and the symbolic or ironic names of its characters all work to convey a meaning that is even more disturbing than the shock created by its well-known ending, namely, that despite assurances during the late 1940s that it couldnt happen here, a microsomal holocaust occurs in this story and, by extension, may happen anyplace in contemporary America. Coming after the revelation of the depths of depravity to which the Nazis sank in their eagerness to destroy others, lesser peoples, The Lottery upsets the readers sense of complacency.

Shirley Jackson lets us know the time of the lottery at the outset of the story. From the description of the mens talk of tractors and taxes (388) and the depiction of Mr. Summers wearing a clean white shirt and blue jeans (389), we may assume that we are in the twentieth century, making the storys impact more immediate. But why does the author choose June 27th as the date on which the village holds its lottery? The summer solstice, June 21st, has already passed, and the Fourth of July is yet to come. The date, if not the century, seems to have been capriciously chosen. Such is not the case, however. June 27th falls halfway between June 21st and July 4th. What significance do these two days bear that makes June 27th the perfect compromise between them?

In European societies, Midsummers day was celebrated at the summers solstice, not in the middle of the summer as its name would suggest. Authors such as Shakespeare, August Strindberg, and William Golding have employed the pagan undertones of that day as modified in A Midsummer Nights Dream, Miss Julie, and The Spire, respectively, for indeed Midsummers Day has a long, heathen, orgiastic tradition behind it. American Independence day, on the other hand, is redolent of democracy, freedom, and, to a certain degree, justice, because it marks the birth of a nation anchored in the belief that people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights (Yarmove 242). June 27th bisects the two weeks between these dichotomous dates and may well embody the contrast between superstitious paganism and rational democracy, a dynamic that plays a central role in The Lottery, especially in light of the storys locale.

At no point does the author tell us where the lottery takes place, but we are made aware of several possible indicators. The town has a population of about 300, and framing seems to be the normal way of making a living. Most of the names are Anglo-Saxon origin. The land yields an abundance of stones. Most important, the lottery itself a model of participatory democracy, the king that New England settlers made famous. All of these seem to point to New England as the locale of the story. It is also in keeping with New Englands history of witch trials and persecutions.

Not only do time and place bear important clues as to the allegorical meaning of The Lottery, but the very names of the characters are laden with significance. The prominent names- Summers, Adams, Graves, Warner, Delacroix, and Tessie Hutchinson- have much to tell us. For the season of the lottery is summer, and the large scope of this work encompasses mankind in general. Graves sounds somber, forewarning note of what will happen to Tessie, and the oldest man in toen, Old Man Warner warns us about the primordial function of the lottery, which is to ensure fertility: Used to be a saying about Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon (391). Mrs. Delacroixs name alludes to the crucifixion of Tessie.

It is the irony that lies behind the protagonists name, Tessie Hutchinson, which magnifies the allegorical force of this story. Historically, there really was a well-known New England Hutchinson-Anne Hutchinson, who, having been exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 because of her religious beliefs, immigrated to Rhode Island, where she established her own church. Eventually, she and most of her family died in an Indian massacre outside of what is today New Rochelle, New York (Yarmove 243). Our protagonist, however, has no strongly held beliefs, except her belief in self-survival. The name Tessie parodies the most famous Tess in literature, Tess Durbeyfield, the protagonist of Thomas Hardys Tess of the DUrbervilles, who in Hardys portrait of her as the plaything of fate, dies ignominiously, since the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess (Yarmove 243). Now we must ask, is Tessie Hutchinson in our story an ingnue, as Hardys protagonist clearly is?

Of course not! Tessie came hurriedly along the path to the square, her sweater thrown over her shoulders, and slid into place in the back of the crowd. Clean forgot what day it was, she said to Mrs. Delacroix, who stood next to her, and they both laughed softly. Thought my old man was out back stacking wood, Mrs. Hutchinson went on, and then I looked out the window and the kids was gone, and then I remembered it was the twenty-seventh and came a-running (389-390). Mrs. Hutchinson said, grinning, wouldnt have me leave mdishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe? (390). Good-natured Tessie actually desires to come to the lottery, going so far as to run to it, although the rest of the townspeople are subdued, even nervous: the mens jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed (388). Mr. Summers and Mr. Adams grinned at one another humorlessly and nervously (390). Young Jack Watson also appears nervous: he blinked his eyes nervously and ducked his head (390). Later, someone in the crowd says, Dont be nervous, jack (391). And not only are the men nervous, of course. I wish theyd hurry, Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son. I wish theyd hurry (391). However, to Tessie the lottery seems to be one great lark: when her husband, Bill, is called upon to choose his familys lottery ticket, Tessie urges him, Get up there, Bill (391), although by now, all through the crowd there were men holding the mall folded papers in their large hands, turning them over and over nervously (390). What a great contrast there is, in short, between the crowds nervousness and Tessies nonchalance.

But when Tessies family is chosen, she becomes a woman transformed. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers, You didnt give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasnt fair! (392). Subsequently, she yells, Theres Don and Eva. Make them take their chance! (392). Putting the moment her perfidy in singling out her married children as possible victims to increase her own chances of survival, we see that she is manifestly not the good-humored, whimsical matron whom we first was eagerly entering the lottery. Her protests of the unfairness of the process0 a thought that only now has occurred to her, since there is every likelihood of her becoming the chosen victim- have a distinctly hollow ring to them, and her defiant glance around the crowd, her lips pursed, as she truculently goes up to the lottery box to puck her ticket, belies her earlier easygoing demeanor. Thus, the irony behind her name has come full circle. Her final assertion (It isnt fair, it isnt right) is neither the cry of an innocent victim nor a martyrs triumphant statement. It is peevish last complaint of a hypocrite who has been hoisted by her own petard.

During this story, there are a lot of examples of irony. First, the word lottery suggests that the villagers are going to draw for a prize. Secondly, the sunny day suggests that a happy event is about to take place. Finally, when Old Man Warner hears that the north village is considering ending the lottery, he says, "Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves (391). The lottery is as savage and barbaric a ritual as any practiced by cave dwellers.

There were many Americans who, after the end of World War II and the revelations of the early Nuremburg trials in 1945 and 1946, smugly asserted that such atrocities could happen in Nazi Germany but not in the United States. After all, singling out one person, one religion, one race for pejorative treatment-these things just could not happen here. In her postwar novel Gentlemans Agreement, Laura Z. Hobson showed that such discrimination was in fact alive and well. Shirley Jackson adds an even more disturbing note in her story, which was initially published in The New Yorker in 1948: custom and law, when sanctioned by selfish, unthinking populaces, can bring an otherwise democratic and seemingly just society to the brink of paganism. When the story was first published, its shocking ending horrified readers, who deluged the magazine with letters of complaint. Many readers cancelled their subscription to the magazine. After the hubbub subsided, critics realized what an outstanding short story it was. Today, the story appears in numerous anthologies for high school and college students. Thus date, the location, and the names in Jacksons story help to create the specter of a holocaust in the United States (Yarmove 244).

In this, The Lottery is eerily reminiscent of the ending of Hardys Tess. When Angel Claire and Tess Durbeyfield flee to the pagan temple at Stonehenge, they see the eastward pillars and their architraves up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped sunstone beyond them: and the Stone of Sacrifice midway (Yarmove 244). This image is an apt metaphor for the plot of The Lottery: despite modernity, democracy, and American neighborliness, the primitive, selfish, superstitious ghost of paganism has been allowed to rear its ugly and destroy one of its own.

Works Cited

Yarmove, Jay A. Jacksons The Lottery. Explicator Summer 1994, Vol.52: 242-243.

Academic Search Elite. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

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