The Lottery, a 1948 short story by Shirley Jackson, developed the themes of adherence to meaningless traditions, parenting and scapegoating. The broad aftermath and the negative responses of the readers who did not see the line between fiction and reality prove that the plot of the short story The Lottery by Jackson reflects the real problems of the modern community.
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The plot of the story depicts a two hours lottery in a small town which finishes with a ritualistic death ceremony of stoning the unlucky participant as a sacrifice for ensuring a better harvest. At the beginning of the short story, the village children walk around collecting stones.
Mr. Summers who runs the lottery mixes the slips of paper in a black box, checks if everyone is in place and invites the heads of the families to draw the papers. When it clears out that Bill Hutchinson gets the unlucky slip, his wife Tessie starts protesting saying that her husband had not enough time for making his choice and the lottery is not fair.
Then, each member of the Hutchinsons family selects a slip of paper, and Tessie draws a slip with a black dot on it. Then, the villagers throw their stones into Tessie as a part of their death ritual. The fact that Tessie does not question the rite itself, but protests against the choice of her family emphasizes the idea of adherence to tradition as the major theme of the short story.
The rite is regarded as sacred and the idea of doubting it does not occur to anybody. When Mrs. Adams admits that the ritual of the lottery has already been abandoned in other villages, Warner as the eldest man in this community answers that giving up the rite can cause only troubles. “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves” (Jackson 14).
Justifying the death ritual with the fact that the lottery has been always held in the village previously, Jackson discloses the theme of parenting when in one of the final episodes, a woman puts a stone into a child’s hand, fostering the tradition of violence and lotteries searching for the scapegoats to be stoned.
Regardless of the indignation raising in the readers’ minds, after decoding the symbolic meaning of the depicted lottery rite, everyone can recollect the situations from personal experience and world’s history in which modern the community selects a scapegoat to be discriminated.
For instance, the Nazis scapegoated the Jewish people, proclaiming them the reason of their troubles. Regardless of the current societal progress, modern people frequently scapegoat sexual and ethnical minorities, blaming them for the current moral decay and other social problems. The social phenomenon of scapegoating is rooted deep in public consciousness and tradition according to which the dominating social group looks for the opportunities of self-affirmation and shifting the responsibility for their problems on the others.
Though the ritual of stoning to death has certain historical basis, its meaning is rather symbolical and should not be taken literally by modern readers. The examples of scapegoating the others, including the limited rights of immigrants for finding a good job and the so-called glass ceiling due to which women receive lower salaries than men doing the same job and have lower chances for career promotion clearly represent the phenomenon of scapegoating in modern community.
In other words, appealing to the readers’ feelings, Shirley Jackson provides them with food for thought not limited to the indignation with the medieval rite, but extended to the reappraisal of their own attitudes and behavior.
The aftermath of The Lottery and the readers’ reaction to the short story proves that its plot impressed the readers recognizing it as the reflection of their lives.
After the short story was published in The New Yorker in 1948, the author received hundreds of hostile letters from the readers objecting to the brutal ending of the story. “As Jackson noted in her witty essay Biography of a Story, many of the letters she received that summer were from people who wanted to know whether these lotteries are held and whether they could go there and watch” (Murphy 104).
The debates concerning the actual location of these rites prove that the line between the fiction and reality as perceived by the readers appeared to be unclear. Hypocritically concealing their fear of becoming a scapegoat, not feeling empathy with Tessie Hutchinson who becomes a victim and not having moral strength and common sense to abandon the meaningless rite, the characters of the short story have a strong resemblance to modern readers.
“The contradictions of myth and ideology, the imaginary solutions to real problems, emerge in the specific rituals that ostensibly endorse the myth and ideology” (Hattenhauer 44). Thus, the plot of the short story can be regarded as the exaggerated reflection of the phenomenon of scapegoating as the imaginary solution to the real problems of the modern community.
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The readers’ reaction to the short story The Lottery which became the classic of American literature proves that the depicted phenomenon of scapegoating appeals to their feelings as a topical problem of the modern community.
Hattenhauer, Darryl. Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic. State University of New York Press, 2003. Print.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. Mankato: Creative Education, 2008. Print.
Murphy, Bernice. Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Publishers. Print.