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Short Stories > Opinions Please: "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

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message 1: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments I submitted this trivia question--Which Shirley Jackson short story features a lottery as a means of population control?--and a member commented that the lottery wasn't for population control but was for a better harvest, so my question/answer is incorrect.

She sited the old man's repeated mantra "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon" as proof that the town offered up someone to ensure a better harvest. But he doesn't repeat it, he just says it once when scoffing at the flippant attitude of the younger kids about the lottery. I believe that this phrase was started to assuage the people's guilt about the stonings or they truly believe it does help the harvest. But it's not the main reason for the lottery.

Ever since reading this short story decades ago I assumed that population control, while not the theme of the story, is the reason for the lottery even though Jackson doesn't spell it out for us in so many words. The theme of the story is that darkness and cruelty lurks very near the surface in all of us.

Here's the short story if anyone would like to read and comment on it: http://www.americanliterature.com/Jac....

I've been wrong before--surprising, I know--so be honest. I can take being wrong.


message 2: by William (new)

William (acknud) | 0 comments I think it was for better harvest.


message 3: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments Hi Tressa,

Since there's not actually a reason given in the story, neither population control nor sacrifice for a good harvest are clearly supported by the story. Old Man Warner's citing of the saying is just his way of arguing for tradition; he goes on and on about how the "old ways" have been lost, but he doesn't sound worried about crops or a fruitful harvest. The village sounds too modern to be so reliant on crops; they have banks, post office, a coal company.

In fact, I think the point is supposed to be that there is no reason for the stoning - it is an outdated, brutal ritual continued on out of tradition. The people in the story have no real connection to the actual methods and meaning behind the ritual; they want to get it over with as soon as possible to get back to their regular lives.

Now, one could speculate on the origin of the ritual stoning. I believe it is highly unlikely the purpose would be population control. That is a completely modern notion. Pretty much any ritual sacrifice in the ancient world was meant to elicit some sort of reward. Human sacrifice was pretty rare, but when it occured it would usually be to ensure good crops, protection from natural disasters, stave off the wrath of the gods, etc. There is no sacrifice ritual of death by stoning that I know of; stoning was a method of execution rather than communal sacrifice per se (especially voluntary). I don't think Jackson based this off any kind of actual myth or ritual. If there is any real "reason" meant to be conveyed by the story for the stoning, I believe it is merely the casual cruelty of human society.


message 4: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments A lot of scholars out there must be wrong, then. Darn you Literature 101 for steering me to the incorrect conclusion all those years ago. Andrew, you write like you teach Literature 101. ;)

Thanks for your opinions, guys. I'll probably go and just delete the trivia question since there is no evidence that the stoning is for population control or a successful harvest.

"The Lottery" will still live in my heart as a favorite short story.



message 5: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments Haha, I will take the "you write like you teach Literature 101" comment as a compliment. Well, I do have a BA in English (though my emphasis was writing, not literature). And I may go back to school and try teaching some day.

I agree that "The Lottery" is probably one of the best horror short stories, and a classic of short stories in general. Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" is also good, and I have a few other novels of hers I'd like to read.


message 6: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Andrew, it's definitely a compliment. I have a BA in English, too. I think you'd be an excellent teacher if you teach the way you write.

I bet you like Flannery O'Connor, too. She has some excellent short stories that I like even more than Shirley Jackson's. I'm sure you've read "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Love it.

We might be reading The Haunting of Hill House for our April read at Horror Aficionado. You should join us. I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle about twenty years ago but don't remember too much about it except there were two weird recluse sisters.


message 7: by Jenney (new)

Jenney | 2 comments tressa,

i wouldn't be so quick to darn Lit101. i distinctly remember, while in high school (MANY years ago), writing a report comparing The Lottery with Jonathan Swift's essay A Modest Proposal. the essay is a satirical take on irish "population control". i don't think i would have compared the two if i didn't believe they had the same theme :)


message 8: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Thanks, Jenney. It's nice to know I'm not going nuts and this population control idea was accepted and discussed when I was in school. If you Google population control and The Lottery, you'll see were not alone.

Although it isn't mentioned in the story, so I wonder where it came from?

Looks like someone deleted my Lottery trivia question for me. Big Brother is watching.


message 9: by Ravenskya (new)

Ravenskya  (ravenskya) Though it has been a looooong time since I read "The Lottery" I remember taking from it sort of a satirical message about people doing things because they've always been done rather then actually thinking about whether or not there is a reason for it. It could be my background and massive education in Quality Assurance and fighting the mindset that "we do it this way because we've always done it this way" and that it doesn't make it right. Though I doubt I put much thought into the original reason for the stoning... that wouldn't have been my line of thinking at that time.


message 10: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments Thanks, Tressa! Others have been telling me I'd make a good teacher. Maybe one day I'll take the profession up, though I know it can be very competitive and you have to more or less scrounge for work, unless you're lucky enough to get tenure.

You're right - I do like O'Connor, good call. I've read a number of her stories and essays. She was brilliant, and had a keen sense of observation, as well as insight into the human psyche. Even though her other stories generally aren't as horrific as "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," they still depict an unpleasant South with some rather troubled characters.






message 11: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments As to where the idea of population control came from: I can only guess, but I believe the story was originally published in 1948. It wasn't long after Hitler, and genocide carried out by Communist dictators like Mao - who said something to the effect of, "Who cares if the U.S. drops a nuclear bomb on China? We are a country of a billion, we could stand to lose a few hundred million people" - was only beginning. Overpopulation was being recognized more and more as a threat to not just national, but global well-being. And I believe many science fiction works in the 50s and 60s, like "Logan's Run" and the film version of Wells' "The Time Machine," began to deal with the theme. Perhaps this influenced interpretations of "The Lottery."




message 12: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Kristen, that is a theme of "The Lottery." I guess it's so vague that it could have many themes. I know it starts off describing the sunny day and the upbeat personalities of the characters, even though one of them will be dead by afternoon. I think Jackson was also trying to touch on the inherent violence that's in all of us.

Andrew, that's as good an idea as any. It's just odd that even though population control wasn't meantioned, so many scholars and readers of the story point to it as a theme.

I read an article yesterday about how we have a rapidly decreasing population all over the world, even in areas that we would think a population explosion is occurring. I don't know if it's true, just something interesting I read.


message 13: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments Tressa wrote: "I read an article yesterday about how we have a rapidly decreasing population all over the world, even in areas that we would think a population explosion is occurring. I don't know if it's true, just something interesting I read. "

Is this something available online, and if so, could you forward the link? If not maybe I can get it from the library. Sounds interesting. I consider overpopulation to be one of the biggest problems in the world today. Whether the birth rates are slowing down (or whether death rates are overtaking them), it still seems to me that we have way too many people for the habitable land and resources that is available....




message 14: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments I read so many news sites a day, it might take me a while to find it. I'll hunt around for it.


message 15: by Scott (last edited Mar 26, 2009 09:54AM) (new)

Scott Yes, even if the human population is decreasing we have a long way to go before the ecosystem is anywhere near stabilized. (Barring some kind of mass extermination--either natural or man-made--I don't think it will ever happen.) Unfortunately, the media treats any report of declining birth rates as an sign of imminent human extinction, which is absurd.


message 16: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Unfortunately, the media treats any report of declining birth rates as an sign of imminent human extinction, which is absurd.

I know. It's not like we're a nomadic group of 500 stretched across a continent.


message 17: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments It seems to me people panic far too easily. (Of course, when we're living underground and fighting off giant green spiders, you can tell me "I told you so.") That doesn't mean it's OK to ignore problems like overpopulation, but arguing that some apocalytpic catastrophy is going to happen (or to be so arrogant about huamnity to think not only will we cause our own extinction, but will kill all life on the planet or destroy the earth itself) is not healthy, either. Why does everyone have to make a big drama about everything just to make a point or get people to think/act differently?

What was I saying in another thread about discussions getting off-topic...?


message 18: by Scott (new)

Scott Honestly, I'm not worried about a total apocalypse. However, I am concerned about things like all the woodlands being paved to make way for new Wal-Marts. This is not an unrealistic concern. Unrestrained humans are capable of destroying all the wild places. Look at what we have done so far. It's not about all human life dying out; it's about all life, as well as quality of life.


message 19: by William (new)

William (acknud) | 0 comments Scott wrote: "Honestly, I'm not worried about a total apocalypse. However, I am concerned about things like all the woodlands being paved to make way for new Wal-Marts. This is not an unrealistic concern. Unr..."


I am preparing for the dead to rise and the zombie apocalypse to be upon us. Prepare yourself...It is coming.

required reading:

The Zombie Survival Guide Complete Protection From the Living Dead by Max Brooks


message 20: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Will these be shuffling or marathoner zombies?


message 21: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments 'Cause otherwise, we'd sit on our ass and do absolutely nothing.

I disagree with you, that's my whole point. People can be moved to action and critical thinking without some theatrical-styled rhetoric being laid upon them. Unfortunately, leaders and ideologues of all stripes like that dramatizing thing because it feeds their ego and sense of power.

Re: self-extinction - humans are adaptable and spread out all over the planet. Do we really think that we are so great that we can wipe ourselves out? Maybe it's possible, anything's possible. We have killed off or nearly killed off some species, but I believe those were animals limited to a small area.

For better and for worse, and sickness and in health, I have the feeling that humans will be wedded to the Earth for a long time to come. But it's all just speculation....


message 22: by William (new)

William (acknud) | 0 comments Tressa wrote: "Will these be shuffling or marathoner zombies?"

Shufflers!




message 23: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Shufflers are fine, but not if they're reanimated as quickly and in such vast numbers as the zombies in World War Z.




message 24: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Right, Rob. Politics and Goodreads friends don't mix.


message 25: by Kim (new)

Kim (durgin19) I taught this story at the beginning of the year to my sophomore class, and I LOVE it! My librarian got her hands on a film version of it (NOT the crappy one with Keri Russell,) and my class was totally silent when it ended. I think Jackson really opens up the idea of the lottery to interpretation. I think the trivia question should have "harvest" as the right answer since the only one who gives a reason close to what the town's purpose may be is Old Man Warner. However, it also seems like it lends itself to population control, but I have also theorized that it may be a means to allow "controlled violence and inhumanity" in the population of the town. This is sort of the only "bad" that goes on in the town, and it's an outlet for the violence and anger that each person sometimes feels or has. I guess I think that way based on my reading of LeGuin's short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." If you haven't read it, do so when you have a chance. It says a lot about "scapegoating," which, by the way, is the new buzzword down here since a mother just let her newborn starve to death and not her twin or the other four kids she has.


message 26: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments I guess the consensus is that the story means different things to different people. I don't think the the old man's adage is proof of the harvest theory. Andrew made some good points about the harvest theory up at the top of the comments.


message 27: by Kim (new)

Kim (durgin19) Do you think it's also revolving around the possible theme of the randomization of violence? The act of doing a lottery might back up that theory, too. Anyone can win. That reminds me of No Country for Old Men.


message 28: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Flannery was interviewed about her story, and she did mention the violence that lies just underneath the surface of everyone. So, yes, I do believe that it's a theme and possibly the main one. She likes to contrast that dark, brooding violence with the sunny day and the excitement of the townspeople as they make preparations for the lottery.

I've seen NCFOM. I didn't consider that violence random unless you mean the way he picks his victims or chooses for them to die. I'd love for you to explain this some more. Sounds interesting.


message 29: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments I don't want to speak for Kim, but my take on what she's saying is that the Lottery may serve a sort of channeling of the inherent tendency toward violence. Anton Chigurh in NCFOM may reflect a similar function. I've often wondered about the reason for the making of serial killers, and think that at least one explanation is that they are made from the social need to express violence. Chigurh isn't driven by greed or revenge or jealousy, but for the need to kill itself. And he feels he is serving fate, that his actions are beyond his control...just as the townspeople in the Lottery are serving tradition.


message 30: by Tressa (last edited Mar 29, 2009 12:44PM) (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Oh, I see. Yeah, we all have violent tendencies because it's just in our DNA from way back, but most of us are able to tamp it down and not let it out, frustrating as that may be for some. But for this town the lottery and stoning IS the one day there is no need to tamp it down.

Speaking of serial killers, you and Kim need to head over to that Oates "Where Are You Going..." short story thread and add some more excellent insight to the discussion. I'm lonely as the Maytag repairman over there. Maybe I picked a short story with too little slashing.



message 31: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Sydlik | 45 comments Don't worry, I'll post some comments soon. Maybe people are waiting because it's the "April Short Story Discussion"? And here I thought people in the South were supposed to do things more slowly.

I have the story in an anthology, which includes some notes by Oates herself on the inspiration behind the story, so I want to look at those before I post anything.


message 32: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Maybe people are waiting because it's the "April Short Story Discussion"?

Oh, I forgot I put "April" in the title. I edited that out. But I doubt that's why.


message 33: by GracieKat (new)

GracieKat | 195 comments I think she left it purposely open, much in the same way that The Haunting of Hill House could be read one of two ways.


message 34: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments I think you're right, Grace. If you Google either harvest or population control and this story, you get hits for each one. But like Andrew said the purpose of the story is probably darker than either of these and is supposed to highlight the inherent tendency towards violence in ALL of us.


message 35: by LinBee (new)

LinBee That would make sense, because the people in the story almost seem to enjoy the lottery. They don't want to give it up, and it may not entirely be because they fear a bad harvest. They like to have the "it's not me feeling."


message 36: by Anna (new)

Anna (stregamari) | 252 comments I loved "the lottery", thought it was a horrifyingly true and accurate depiction of the error of following tradition. "but we've always done this procedure to young girls before they get married", "we always bind our daughter's feet to make them more beautiful" "if we just kill one random person a year, we'll always have a perfect life" true horror!!

imho, of course!!


message 37: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments You're so right, Anna. "We've always done it this way!"


message 38: by Scott (new)

Scott I try to do things differently every time, just to throw people off.


message 39: by Anna (new)

Anna (stregamari) | 252 comments Scott wrote: "I try to do things differently every time, just to throw people off."

having adhd helps, i can't focus long enough to so the same thing twice! besides, rituals scare me! having grown up catholic


message 40: by Trudi (new)

Trudi (trudistafford) | 28 comments Tressa wrote: It's just odd that even though population control wasn't meantioned, so many scholars and readers of the story point to it as a theme.

In my experience, lit scholars are notorious for reading into stories themes that the author never intended in the first place. That's not to say population control doesn't have merit. And just because Jackson wasn't thinking population control, doesn't mean the story can't be read that way. It's all interpretation right? And sometimes, how each generation interprets a story/novel/movie tells us much more about that time than the story itself.

I'm reminded of The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. This book has been adapted for the screen four separate times -- in the 50's, 70's, 90's and most recently 2007. Each adaptation brings a different interpretation to the novel, from anti-Communist paranoia (50's) to anti-government fears and belief in conspiracy theories growing out of Vietnam and Watergate (70's). But the author Jack Finney has confessed that he intended no specific political allegory in the work.

I'm also reminded of scholars who have labeled Stephen King's short story "Children of the Corn" as an anti-Vietnam piece, which completely baffles the author who confesses that was not his intention in the writing.


message 41: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Good points, Trudi. Never knew this about "Children of the Corn." Sometimes a story about demonic children is just a story about demonic children.


message 42: by Scott (new)

Scott Yeah really...he was just being realistic.


message 43: by Meg (new)

Meg | 1 comments I don't think it's about population control at all and I guess I'm confused about why scholars would conclude that. What good would it be to kill off one person in a town every year? If you're trying to control a population it would take more than that. And why then not restrict the lottery to people at or near child bearing age as this would be much more effiecent. An old granny or a little kid doesn't pose as much threat to increase the population as someone who could reporduce at any time. There are many, many real life instances of ancient societies that participated in human sacrifice to ensure favor from the Gods (rain, good harvest etc...) Some of the mummies found in the pete bogs of Europe and in the Mountains of South America are thought to be examples of this. I'd bet money the saying about the corn being heavy after the lottery was an allusion to this. I think the author was trying to show that even though we supposedly live in a more "civilized" society, the capability for this kind of evil is still within us as human beings.


message 44: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments Population control in the sense that maybe nobody wanted to have kids since they may have to stone them in the future? Who knows. It's just a theory that I remember from a teacher way back when. I'm sure the majority of readers and scholars believe in the theme of an annual sacrifice from the community to ensure favors from the gods, and they're probably right. Although I'm not the only one who has heard of/been taught this population theory.


Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* (erinpaperbackstash) | 876 comments I never got the impression it was about population control, but that weird pagan thing about sacrifice and harvest like the Wicker Man. Also a demented little town.


Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* (erinpaperbackstash) | 876 comments Trudi wrote: "I'm also reminded of scholars who have labeled Stephen King's short story "Children of the Corn" as an anti-Vietnam piece, which completely baffles the author who confesses that was not his intention in the writing. ."

Wow, wonder how they got that. People really do reach with some things. I re-read Children of the corn short story last year. Just seemed like a good story but nothing political in it to me


message 47: by Walter (last edited Jun 01, 2014 11:37PM) (new)

Walter Spence (walterspence) | 573 comments Just found this thread.

I remember discussing this story in an english lit class back in my wayward youth. Our consensus was that the true evil of the story derived from the fact that although there was no universal agreement amongst the people on why the Lottery should be held, the villagers still continued the practice because it was 'tradition'.


message 48: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments So we're all correct, lol. The dreaded "we've always done it this way."


message 49: by K4tie (new)

K4tie (nonzombieleader) | 484 comments I would love a buddy read of the lottery. Apparently it's not to be missed. :)


message 50: by Tressa (new)

Tressa  (moanalisa) | 19935 comments It is certainly not to be missed. A buddy read would be fun; I'd join in.


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