Lorraine Balint--- Intro. to Literature--- October 7, 2003
1.) Lenemaja Freidman surmises that Jackson's story brings ancient fertiltiy rituals to contemporary America. she explains, further, that "modern man considers such practices barbaric, and therefore alien to civilized behavior." Compare her statements to those made by old Man Warner in the story. Can we judge the villagers morally if the stoning is, indeed, a fertility rite?
In a world where millions of human beings kill each other in wars organized and
paid for by their governments in the name of ideals their leaders don't even possess....
Where terrorists ply their own somewhat ritualistic mass murders (which some observers
make queasy efforts to understand!).... Where millions of legalized abortions for
non-vital reasons take place every year.... And other forms of mayhem committed in
the name of this or that principle take place even in so-called "civilized"
countries.... The morality of an ancient fertility rite that takes one life a year
is relative, and barely a blip on the radar.
Still, as Stalin once observed, "the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." Mass death, nameless and almost faceless, numbs the killer and those who hear of the killing. The death of one by sacrifice, even if the victim consents (some belief systems required this, in order for the sacrifice to be effectual) and the manner of selection (or election) is objective, is considered an abomination by most of modern society. (Go figure.)
Shirley Jackson was apparently aware of these contradictions in 1948, after years of exposure to stories of WW2, the Nazis, the atomic bomb, the new conflict just starting in Korea, etc. Plus, it appears she had some intuition about what is known as the "banality of evil", if evil's what the lottery truly is. It IS banal (taken for granted) and nasty (stoning must be one of the most lingering and painful ways of execution imaginable, unless one is "mercifully" hit in the right spot immediately), but if unfairness is an issue in evil, the lottery itself does not appear to be unfair. It seems that even children and the elderly can suffer, and, if the town "dignitaries" are truly honest, they and their own families are subject to the same penalty if they "win." (The fact that Summers and Graves DO participate, and appear to suffer the same anxiety until the moment of truth, may be one factor that keeps the others in the "game.")
Compared to all those other seemingly inexhorable horrors of the last century, in truth, if the Lottery is ONLY a fertility ritual (and extreme tool for civic unity), it has to be judged in the context of its setting. If, however, there are deeper, darker underlying motives, then it's fair game. Ultimately, the "morality" of fertility rituals depends on the growth of religious skepticism, or replacement of the current dogma by strong new religion with different ideas, especially religions that emphasize the value of the individual over the (perceived) needs of the group. Human-sacrificing religions in the world were eventually supplanted by those that sacrificed animals, and then, by symbolic sacrifices (such as Holy Communion in Christianity), and finally, much of the ammuntion that fuels fanaticism has been spent on scientific explanations for everything.
There has been a current of political correctness about, which informs its practioners that they have no business judging other cultures, even if their practices are cruel and even vile. By giving an appearance of fairness and expediency, the town that practices this lottery tries to keep these elements under control. It works to a certain extent--- the little society seems orderly enough. Perhaps the scheduled murder of a random fellow citizen quenches desires to kill or abuse others impulsively. The villagers might not be very open-hearted, but they have little else to fear from each other, and their willingness to join in the lottery gives them motivation to co-operate and bring in that harvest.
The town in which this Lottery takes place is surrounded by others which are gradually giving it up, for whatever reasons. Granted, this one town seems rather poor; perhaps the harvest wasn't good the year before, and, refusing to look for another solution, it may be a while before they catch up to their more "enlightened" neighbors. But though the villagers still get caught up in their own brand of "civic spirit", and chuck stones at the miserable Tessie for all they're worth, there's some signs that things MIGHT change. The loss of all the ceremonial trappings, the stirrings of the fear of loss in some of the youngsters, the inevitable crumbling of the lottery box, which nobody seems motivated to replace.... Though that could all mean nothing in the end, if continuing satisfies some deep need, regardless of moral imperative.
This latter angle was explored in a TV miniseries loosely based on this story. In the film, the lottery was still taking place at the turn of the millennium, but, because the town had been modernized, it changed its purpose--- no longer a fertility ritual, but a scapegoating system which, the townspeople firmly believed, kept outside evils at bay. The system of choice had not changed from the basics outlined in the original story--- the officials were not using a computer, or those silly little numbered wiffle balls that get blown up through plastic tubes.
Lenemaja Friedman is correct that Old Man Warner IS a frightening character because of his deep-seated, lifelong devotion to the ritual cult, but demonizes him perhaps too much. "Warner" is another symbolic name, like Summers and Graves, because he "warns" others of the possible "dire" consequences of stopping the Lottery, yet while repeating that he has lived through 77 of them (assuming one becomes eligible to be stoned as an infant.) Friedman observes that he sounds heartless, and perhaps he IS, though not just from the motives she surmises, but out of necessity. While these people socialize, marry and have families, one can imagine it must be difficult to form true attachments to ANYONE, even one's own children, if one knows he or she may be pelting the loved one to death with stones, or getting pelted by the loved one, the following June.
It is not mentioned whether or not Old man Warner even HAS any family. Perhaps he has alienated himself from them to protect himself emotionally, or he did not start one because of buried fear of the lottery, or he's lost someone he loved to it, and must, forever after, behave that way to justify the loss and his own survival--- not to mention the survival of his crops. His complaint when a young girl chum of Nancy Hutchinson's hopes aloud that her friend won't have the "winning" ticket, that "people ain't the way they used to be", shows his frustration and resentment over a youngster putting personal feelings ahead of the duty to help promote a good harvest--- a "Fault" that he, and the other adults, have had, long since, to put aside.
He reflects, both, the cause, and the consequence of the ritual--- the ancient fear of provoking some obscure deity into causing catastrophe unless a hideous tribute is offered, and the equally ancient fear that it might really be for nought, which then made him dependent on the little ritualistic touches he now claims to miss. And, indeed, those touches are VERY important, as in the following true-life example:
In 1996, the mummified body of a young girl was found in a cave at over 20,000 ft. in Peru, her body tenderly blanketed and surrounded by offerings, all of which were well-preserved after over 500 years, by the terrible cold. An autopsy and studies of the area determined that she had been clubbed in the head after a ritual that lasted at least 4 days, honoring a mountain deity. While other such mummies had been found in the area, most of those children had died from ritual starvation, and none were found at such a high altitude.
You may recall, this was the girl who later became the butt of tasteless jokes
by American politicians running for office at the time! The horror of such wretched
humor was that, it appeared the girl had been selected and groomed for her role,
a sorrowful honor to be sure, but the condition of her tomb indicated the highest
respect for her sacrifice. The meaning of the sacrifice might have been lost in
time, and the reward for it might not have come after all--- that's the way it goes
with sacrifices. "Gods" were fickle, greedy, and in this case, brutal.
But the girl's family, at the time, probably consoled themselves with the belief
that she would be treated honorably until the end (the autopsy showed she'd been
drugged, anyway), and that her death would do some good. And, whatever trappings,
songs, prayers, feasts, etc. accompanied the
ceremonies, may have further distracted the girl's family and friends.
This, then, might be more at what one such as Old Man Warner was missing--- the "pretty" costumes and customs that made it all bearable, that make all manner of sacrifices both "civilized" and yet, detached from the visceral, messy reality of the (possibly futile) killing. He perceived irreverent jocularity and, then, hasty expediency, in the lottery officials, without empathy for the concept, that maybe this was THEIR defense mechanism to shield themselves from the grim reality. This was followed by the haphazard choice of some average, pitiful modern housewife in a faded dress, who then complained about the unfairness of it all, hardly the beautiful saintly resignation and surrender for the good of the many, and pleasing to the deity in charge, that he THINKS he remembers.
2.) Jackson's response to the readers of the magazine was: "I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Does her response explain the story?
It's unfortunate that creative people are always expected to explain their work--- most of the time the "explanations" either sound like excuses, or, worse, are so totally lame they leave the listeners more mystified, or even worse yet, end up sounding like jerks. ("Yeah, yeah, I know why you wrote that, or directed / acted in that, or sculpted / painted that. Desire for money and attention.")
Though the upshot of the story proves the point Jackson "supposed and hoped" to make, and it seems clear she gave the topic of man's inhumanity to man some thought, that's not her version of the genesis of this story. She, allegedly, suddenly had this inspiration one day, sat down immediately and dashed it down, only needed a little revision over the first draft, and was accepted and published within a couple of weeks by a magazine whose editor wasn't even sure about its propriety, all of which sounds quite serendipitous.
If one is superstitious, one could say it was MEANT to be. Friedman states that Jackson didn't even WANT to explain the story when first pressed, but it turned out to be so controversial, she was backed into a corner, so to speak. (It must have floored her when her "well-intentioned" subtle morality tale led some readers to ask if this was a real place and event they could observe!)
There WERE stories of sacrifices for good harvests before. The theme was taken
up in later works, most notably in Thomas Tryon's book "Harvest Home",
but that was more in the mystery-horror genre, and, because it was a whole book,
more character-driven than Jackson's story. The details were very different, and
there is a sociological / cultural underpinning--- those running the 7-year cycle
of sacrifices in Tryon's Cornwall Coombe are descendants of the Grecian women who
practiced the Eleusinian mysteries, and who, in spite of their gender, secretly hold
ultimate power in their town, and refuse all efforts to improve their farms with
Even the Christian church in their town is beholden to the older religion--- operating as though the two systems go hand-in-hand, the women use the church as a gathering place, receiving a benediction from the minister before heading to their clearing in the woods!
However, the message of the 400+ page novel is not as universally applicable as the annual game of chance in the anonymous, patriarchal little town in 6 pages of "The Lottery." The women in Cornwall Coombe justify their anti-male rituals with the protestation that only women REALLY understand cycles of fertility and just about everything else important. Worse, they suck in the wife and daughter of the narrator to eventually provide "new blood"--- to, hopefully, create new children whose births will guarantee good harvests for 7 years--- after 300 years of inbreeding led to defectives and sterile potential mothers. To silence the men who discover the secrets, they kill and maim to keep them from informing the modern world around them.
The villagers of "The Lottery" have no such issues--- the Lottery is equal-opportunity, from toddlerhood into old age, with males and females, great and small, all at risk. They are suspended in some dimension where the game is practiced by all the surrounding towns, even the largest ones. They don't have to be descendants of ancient Greeks (though Friedman mentions stoning as a means of dispatching victims at an Athenian religious festival.) Their mostly Anglo-Saxon names (except "Zanini"!) are are irrelevent---though both Teutonic and early British races practiced human sacrifice, stabbing and strangling (as in the case of the "bog men" sacrifices), not stoning, was more their style. (They built sacrificial altars of stone to stab people ON.)
There is a deep-seated fear of the failure of the corn crop, and, given the rather poor condition of the town, this may have been the case for some years, but some of the other communities have faced down this fear and stopped their lotteries. Yet, nobody has yet run away to these towns, perhaps fearing civic disorder as well as disastrous harvests. Freedom from the Lottery, to them, is an unacceptable risk, even though it makes their interpersonal relationships almost meaningless in relation to what they feel they must do to insure the harvest.
That the town is small makes it insular and claustrophobic, while being a microcosm of society at large. The lottery is an extreme symbol of unifying force. For one day a year, the amiable townsfolk agree to instantly select, demonize, hate, and kill one random member of their community and families, though so much of the original ritual has been forgotten (apparently, they never bothered to write any of it down, though they aren't illiterate) it's a mindless habit that Old Man Warner actually has to remind them of the meaning.
As I observed in Question # 1, Shirley Jackson wrote in awareness of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century up until 1948, when this story was published. Ordinary citizens of Nazi-occupied countries came to think nothing of clearing out Jews and other "undesirables", killing them, or at least hosting death camps in their towns. Stalin was working millions of his people to exhaustion and often death to build huge dams and other projects, and imprisoning and killing dissenters.
But "the Lottery" is not about a specific group targetted for destruction because they were different from the majority, or in the way of some selfish goal. It was a more intimate look at the arbitrary way small groups seem to need their scapegoats--- like "Gimpel the Fool"--- even arbitrarily picking them, and, occasionally, killing them either directly, or causing them to kill themselves through a campaign of mistreatment and innuendo.. Treating one member badly happens in families as well. Yet, the villagers excuse it by assigning a higher purpose--- putting all the pollution on the lottery winner, like a sin-eater, then killing the person to keep their fields green.
Interestingly, though she gave all the villagers names not likely to identify them as people in her own town, and made some of the characterizations sketchy, Jackson herself admitted in that very statement that she set the story "in the present and my own village." She must have been thinking of some extreme types that she knew, and cogitated on their possible reactions to such a set-up.
Even so, it doesn't explain how she came up with the universal, yet mythic quality
of "The Lottery." If her account of the events that led to her writing
the story are true, the story almost wrote itself first, and then tried to explain
itself to her, via the reactions of the readers, afterward.
3.) Friedman points out that, upon learning of her peril, Tessie Hutchinson "reacts like a frightened animal." In what ways are Tessie's actions animal-like? In what ways are they brutally human? Explain.
Tessie's reactions of increasing panic veer from one extreme to the next. Though she knows, after years of experience, that "objections are irrelevant and resistance is futile", she protests, wheedles and whines desperately, though not quite pathetically, until the end. It is shameful that she tries to drag her eldest daughter and son-in-law back into the family fold in order to decrease her own risk, and doesn't even protest on behalf of her toddler son, but the other family--- her son-in-law Don's--- now have the advantage of the extra person, and perhaps, grandchildren someday, and if they had drawn the spotted ticket, THEY would have been doing the same thing. Tessie may be hypocritical, but when the heat is on, so is everyone else in town.
Her very natural, primal fear is part and parcel of the contradiction between what someone like Old man Warner would have liked to see in a lottery "winner", and the harsh reality, probably repeated since the beginning of the custom, who knows how many years before. Many of the stonees, no matter how stoic they were up until the stoners chose their weapons, must have had similar reactions when the fatal moment arrived.
The next reaction was paralyzing terror, common to animals and people alike. Tessie froze the instant she knew she had the ticket; her husband had to force it out of her hand. She can't escape--- the time for that has passed--- but the next animal reaction would be to put up some kind of fight, and she does NOT do that. She has been surrounded by family and friends, and makes a human gesture, putting out her hands in supplication. She's STILL hoping they'll buy the tired "It's not fair, it's not right" protest, and miraculously drop their stones, rather than shielding herself, slapping at them, or grabbing some of stones and chucking them back.
In spite of Tessie's animal and human terror of death (and via such a painful method), the ancient tradition is, apparently, too deeply ingrained for her make an effective self-defense OR memorable protest. Though this form of sacrifice is not an animal behavior, by willlingly participating in it up to this point, Tessie WAS following the herd. If she had gotten to stone someone instead of being stoned, she could been said to follow the pack.