Was ‘The Lottery’ Friendly or Too Horrible to Fathom

WARNING: READING THIS MIGHT CAUSE NIGHTMARES!  Please don’t read this if you scare easily as you might not sleep tonight.  It’s a horror story with present day relevance in certain parts of our polarized country and places where vestiges of racism and violent tendencies still are lurking.  

A short story called “The Lottery” written by Shirley Jackson in The New Yorker magazine unleashed a storm of protest from readers in 1948. 

The uproar was in reaction to how benign and commonplace she described a friendly village where each year stoning your neighbor to death was as routine as scratching a lottery ticket in a Publix Supermarket. 

Children would start gathering pebbles and rocks making small piles of them for the upcoming festivities.

The unlucky neighbor stoned was the single loser in an otherwise convivial social event called the lottery, which was a routine, almost joyous occasion that brought all the folks together in a public square to see who would be the next stone-ee. 

It was almost like today would be hanging out with a group of unvaccinated friends, embracing each one without your mask on, then going home to kiss your grandparents a loving goodbye. 

It showed how depravity can seem so normal in certain societies like it must have been for children of plantation owners in the south in the early 1800’s watching slaves pick cotton in the fields.  Yes, it was the normal thing to do back then in the segregated south. 

Or today watching a white cop kneel on a black man’s neck seems almost routine and normal, just like for poor people living on a meager dole in ghettos where depression and violence appear just like a normal response to life’s extraordinary challenges. 

Like the war on drugs declared 50 years ago by a President who soon thereafter was accused himself of crimes, forcing him to resign in disgrace and to this day with the U.S. mired in a deadly opioid epidemic that did not abate during the coronavirus pandemic’s worst days.  So, it’s highly questionable whether anyone won the war on drugs, or for that matter, such wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Yet the loser in the war on drugs is clear: millions of Black and Latino Americans, their families and their communities with the imposition of mandatory minimum prison sentences, harsh federal and state penalties leading to an increase in the prison industrial complex that saw millions of Americans, primarily of color, locked up for eternities and shut out of the American dream.

No, The Lottery is hardly a sign of inequality, social injustice or systemic racism.  It’s just the way things are, so enjoy it and be curious to see who draws the next losing ticket.  

The story in The New Yorker provoked more letters to the editor than ever before.  Many of them vehement as shocked readers expressed outrage to bewilderment. They were perturbed or puzzled by The Lottery!  Some said they were scratching right through their scalps trying to fathom it.

The Lottery presented life and death as a random drawing.  What cards we’re dealt can mean whether we stick around or go underground. 

As if life itself is a drawing for a certain skin color or having parents with hopefully a sizable net worth?  We each draw what talents we’ll have to develop?  How bright we’ll be? And most importantly what country will be our beloved birthplace!

The New Yorker’s Kip Orr, who was charged with responding to all the letters on Jackson’s behalf, echoed this position in his standard formulation: “Miss Jackson’s story can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways. It’s just a fable. . . . She has chosen a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.”

The Lottery takes the classic theme of man’s inhumanity to man and gives it regrettably a not so new twist: the randomness often inherent in brutality.

“It anticipates the way we would come to understand the twentieth century’s unique lessons about the capacity of ordinary citizens to do evil—from the Nazi camp bureaucracy, to the Communist societies that depended on the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor and the experiments by the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo demonstrating how little is required to induce strangers to turn against each other,” said book critic Ruth Franklin, who wrote so insightfully about what was behind The Lottery.

“In 1948, with the fresh horrors of the Second World War barely receding into memory and the Red Scare just beginning, it is no wonder that the story’s first readers reacted so vehemently to this ugly glimpse of their own faces in the mirror, even if they did not realize exactly what they were looking at,” wrote Franklin, the author of  “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,” for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography in 2016.

Besides an inveterate blogger, Tom Madden is an author of countless published articles and five books, including his latest, WORDSHINE MAN, available this summer on Amazon.   He is the founder and CEO of TransMedia Group, an award-winning public relations firm serving clients worldwide since 1981 and has conducted remarkably successful media campaigns and crisis management for America’s largest companies and organizations.