Critical Analysis: Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

There is a lot that can be said about Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery." It is a classic for many reasons. It's controversial, especially for the time in which it was written, thought provoking in the underlying meaning of it all, and a terrifyingly accurate account of the darker things people are capable of. Over the years, it has sparked a lot of debate, perhaps because people are uncomfortable with how close to home the story's themes can hit. In it, Jackson touches on such issues as hypocrisy, mob mentality, impatience, and selfishness. She creates a world so normal and innocuous that, from the beginning, the readers find themselves sucked in to the story, able to relate. This is why the ending comes to us as such a great surprise, because one minute we're there, on a warm sunny day with all of our neighbors and friends, and in the next minute, we're part of a world that's full of terrible rituals and unbelievable things. In "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson demonstrates the darkest sides of human nature.Hypocrisy is one of the first themes that we come across as readers in "The Lottery," and there are a few instances in which we see this demonstrated. In the beginning of the story, the men are shown as the typical head of the household, authoritative, chivalrous figures. The men are the ones who draw the names for the whole family, and when the women call for the children and the children don't listen, it is the men who step in to get them to listen and obey. At the end of the story, however, the men have no problem in stoning a person to death, even if it is a woman-a wife or a mother, a sister or a friend. The hypocrisy of the characters also makes way for the townspeople to turn on each other. For example, when Mrs. Hutchinson arrives to the lottery late, she has a short, companionable moment with Mrs. Delacroix. In the story, Mrs. Hutchinson states to Mrs. Delacroix, who stood next to her, that she completely forgot what day it was, and then "they both laughed softly." At the end of the story though, it is Mrs. Delacroix who is one of the first to turn on Mrs. Hutchinson, when it is Mrs. Hutchinson's name that is pulled from the box. Jackson writes, "Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. 'Come on,' she said. 'Hurry up.'" But Mrs. Hutchinson cannot place blame on the men for their hypocrisy or even Mrs. Delacroix for quickly turning on her because she, herself, demonstrates her own hypocrisy. She arrives late to the lottery, but seems to be in a generally good mood about it, and is eager to participate. When it's time for her husband to go up to the front to draw his slip of paper from the box, she encourages him to get on up there. However, she is the first to cry out the unfairness of it all when her husband, Bill, pulls out their family name. She claims that it wasn't fair, that he wasn't given enough time to choose which piece of paper he wanted (394). They don't take back the selection, however, and put in a slip for each member of their family, and when it's determined that she has been chosen, she's crying out, "it isn't fair, it isn't right."

The main theme of the story in my opinion was the undercurrent of mob mentality. Throughout the story, the villagers succumb to mob mentality. The lottery, itself, is an example of mob mentality. They cannot get past the tradition-they want to do everything just as it has always been done. Of the tradition, Jackson writes, "The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here." The villagers also frown upon other villages that have done away with or changed the lottery in some way. Mr. Adams and Mr. Warner discuss what other villages are doing. Mr. Adams tells Mr. Warner that in a neighboring village, they're talking about giving up the lottery. Mr. Warner then snorts, and says, "Pack of crazy fools. 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." It is obvious by this passage that he is appalled by the thought of doing away with the lottery, no matter how wrong it seems from the outside. From the inside, it's tradition, and tradition can never be wrong. Another case of mob mentality is with Mrs. Delacroix again. She'd been the one who'd been friendly with Mrs. Hutchinson in the beginning, but she was the one to urge Mrs. Dunbar to hurry up and get it over with. She told Mrs. Dunbar to "come on" and to "hurry up."

The third dark aspect of human nature that is showcased in Shirley Jackson's, "The Lottery" is the villagers' impatience. While they are still pulling names, Mrs. Dunbar is growing impatient for them to get on with it. She says to her older son, "I wish they'd hurry." Another sign of impatience is in the details of the lottery. One of the most important details that Jackson describes is that they are a small village so the whole thing took less than two hours, so it could be started early and they'd still have time to make it home for lunch. Specifically she writes, "In some towns, there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner." Impatience is even shown after all of the names have been drawn, and they've discovered who their victim is this year. Mr. Summers is quick to urge the group to hurry up by saying, "all right, folks, let's finish quickly."

Through all of this, the villagers are also selfish, which seems to be the most shocking, and hardest aspect to swallow as a reader. One of the most surprising things as a reader watching from the outside is Tessie Hutchinson, herself, who would be willing, if it weren't against the rules, to put her married daughter's name in with their family so the chances of her own name coming out are slimmer. Once their family's name is drawn, she exclaims, "There's Don and Eva. Make them take their chance!" There is also the fact that even the innocent children are not exempt from the lottery. Once the Hutchinson's family name is drawn, Mr. Summers asks Mr. Hutchinson how many names will be going back in, to pick which of them will receive the stoning, and the children are included, even little Dave, who is too young to even pull a name on his own.

There are many details that Shirley Jackson put into the writing of "The Lottery," each of which build a world that is so similar to ours that it makes it terrifying to see it from an outsider's perspective. The villagers are hypocritical, impatient, unable to break away from the norm no matter how gruesome, and selfish. They are quick to turn on each other, women and children alike, and seem to have absolutely no remorse about any of it. They look down upon the villages around them that have implemented free thought and done away with the lotteries, without even questioning the moral of it all. It is through the details of the story that Jackson shows us the darkest aspect of human nature.

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