The short story The Lottery was originally published in The New Yorker magazine on June 26, 1948. It was written by Shirley Jackson (Dec 14, 1916 – Aug 8, 1965). Up until then, Ms. Jackson was an American author who was unheard of until she gained fame – and notoriety – with her short story. The story ignited a cascade of hate mail and cancelled subscriptions.
Many readers interpreted the story as an attack on the values of small towns across America. What should be understood is that during the late 1940s, when this short story was published, many city councils across America sponsored weekly cash-prize lotteries that would draw people together in rural communities. The lotteries were meant to create commerce for the local merchants. Despite its reception at the time it was published, the story has achieved cult status as a short story classic and it is widely read in American classrooms today.
After viewing the movie The Hunger Games, which is based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, I decided to post this not-so-well-known short story. The Hunger Games addresses a dystopian society in a future America, where in the ruins of a nation once known as America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV, where two young people, via a national lottery, are pitted against other young people from various districts to fight to the death, with only one victor left standing. The two young people must fight using their wits and skills, gladiator-style to stay alive and if they survive, bring glory to their district, all the while this bread and circus spectacle is beamed to the twelve districts as a live reality show.
The Lottery precedes The Hunger Games (Reprint edition July 3, 2010) by six decades, but, its message even for that time still made for a story that made quite an impact on its readers, as it still does today. Just as in The Hunger Games there is a rebellion against the lottery, so too in The Lottery there a rebellion (albeit a last minute rebellion) against what is about to take place as a result of the lottery, but, in the end, the lottery continues, as it has become so deeply ingrained into the communities that it has become the common and the routine in their daily lives. A community or nation, that could settle so comfortably into a tyrannical and totalitarian society that worships bloodlust and death.
I now present to you, The Lottery.
Mrs. Hutchinson craned her neck to see through the crowd and found her husband and children standing near the front. She tapped Mrs. Delacroix on the arm as a farewell and began to make her way through the crowd. The people separated good-humoredly to let her through: two or three people said, in voices just loud enough to be heard across the crowd, “Here comes your, Missus, Hutchinson,” and “Bill, she made it after all.” Mrs. Hutchinson reached her husband, and Mr. Summers, who had been waiting, said cheerfully, “Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie.” Mrs. Hutchinson said, grinning, “Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you. Joe?,” and soft laughter ran through the crowd as the people stirred back into position after Mrs. Hutchinson’s arrival.
“Well, now.” Mr. Summers said soberly, “guess we better get started, get this over with, so’s we can go back to work. Anybody ain’t here?”
“Dunbar.” several people said. “Dunbar. Dunbar.”
Mr. Summers consulted his list. “Clyde Dunbar.” he said. “That’s right. He’s broke his leg, hasn’t he? Who’s drawing for him?”
“Me. I guess,” a woman said, and Mr. Summers turned to look at her. “Wife draws for her husband.” Mr. Summers said. “Don’t you have a grown boy to do it for you, Janey?” Although Mr. Summers and everyone else in the village knew the answer perfectly well, it was the business of the official of the lottery to ask such questions formally. Mr. Summers waited with an expression of polite interest while Mrs. Dunbar answered.
“Horace’s not but sixteen yet.” Mrs. Dunbar said regretfully. “Guess I gotta fill in for the old man this year.”
“Right.” Sr. Summers said. He made a note on the list he was holding. Then he asked, “Watson boy drawing this year?”
A tall boy in the crowd raised his hand. “Here,” he said. “I m drawing for my mother and me.” He blinked his eyes nervously and ducked his head as several voices in the crowd said things like “Good fellow, lack.” and “Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it.”
“Well,” Mr. Summers said, “guess that’s everyone. Old Man Warner make it?”
“Here,” a voice said, and Mr. Summers nodded.
A sudden hush fell on the crowd as Mr. Summers cleared his throat and looked at the list. “All ready?” he called. “Now, I’ll read the names–heads of families first–and the men come up and take a paper out of the box. Keep the paper folded in your hand without looking at it until everyone has had a turn. Everything clear?”
The people had done it so many times that they only half listened to the directions: most of them were quiet, wetting their lips, not looking around. Then Mr. Summers raised one hand high and said, “Adams.” A man disengaged himself from the crowd and came forward. “Hi. Steve.” Mr. Summers said, and Mr. Adams said, “Hi. Joe.” They grinned at one another humorlessly and nervously. Then Mr. Adams reached into the black box and took out a folded paper. He held it firmly by one corner as he turned and went hastily back to his place in the crowd, where he stood a little apart from his family, not looking down at his hand.
“Allen.” Mr. Summers said. “Anderson…. Bentham.”
“Seems like there’s no time at all between lotteries any more.” Mrs. Delacroix said to Mrs. Graves in the back row.
“Seems like we got through with the last one only last week.”
“Time sure goes fast, ” Mrs. Graves said.
“There goes my old man,” Mrs. Delacroix said. She held her breath while her husband went forward.
“Dunbar,” Mr. Summers said, and Mrs. Dunbar went steadily to the box while one of the women said, “Go on. Janey,” and another said, “There she goes.”
“We’re next.” Mrs. Graves said. She watched while Mr. Graves came around from the side of the box, greeted Mr. Summers gravely and selected a slip of paper from the box. By now, all through the crowd there were men holding the small folded papers in their large hand, turning them over and over nervously. Mrs. Dunbar and her two sons stood together, Mrs. Dunbar holding the slip of paper.
“Get up there, Bill,” Mrs. Hutchinson said, and the people near her laughed.
“They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
Old Man Warner snorted. “Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “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 any more, 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,” he added petulantly. “Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody.”
“Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
“Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.”
“Martin.” And Bobby Martin watched his father go forward. “Overdyke…. Percy.”
“I wish they’d hurry,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son. “I wish they’d hurry.”
“They’re almost through,” her son said.
“You get ready to run tell Dad,” Mrs. Dunbar said.
Mr. Summers called his own name and then stepped forward precisely and selected a slip from the box. Then he called, “Warner.”
“Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery,” Old Man Warner said as he went through the crowd. “Seventy-seventh time.”
“Watson” The tall boy came awkwardly through the crowd. Someone said, “Don’t be nervous, Jack,” and Mr. Summers said, “Take your time, son.”
After that, there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.
“Well, everyone,” Mr. Summers said, “that was done pretty fast, and now we’ve got to be hurrying a little more to get done in time.” He consulted his next list. “Bill,” he said, “you draw for the Hutchinson family. You got any other households in the Hutchinsons?”
“There’s Don and Eva,” Mrs. Hutchinson yelled. “Make them take their chance!”
“Daughters draw with their husbands’ families, Tessie,” Mr. Summers said gently. “You know that as well as anyone else.”
“It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said.
“I guess not, Joe.” Bill Hutchinson said regretfully. “My daughter draws with her husband’s family; that’s only fair. And I’ve got no other family except the kids.”
“Then, as far as drawing for families is concerned, it’s you,” Mr. Summers said in explanation, “and as far as drawing for households is concerned, that’s you, too. Right?”
“Right,” Bill Hutchinson said.
“How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.
“Three,” Bill Hutchinson said.
“There’s Bill, Jr., and Nancy, and little Dave. And Tessie and me.”
“All right, then,” Mr. Summers said. “Harry, you got their tickets back?”
Mr. Graves nodded and held up the slips of paper. “Put them in the box, then,” Mr. Summers directed. “Take Bill’s and put it in.”
“I think we ought to start over,” Mrs. Hutchinson said, as quietly as she could. “I tell you it wasn’t fair. You didn’t give him time enough to choose. Everybody saw that.”
Mr. Graves had selected the five slips and put them in the box, and he dropped all the papers but those onto the ground, where the breeze caught them and lifted them off.
“Listen, everybody,” Mrs. Hutchinson was saying to the people around her.
“Ready, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked, and Bill Hutchinson, with one quick glance around at his wife and children, nodded.
“Remember,” Mr. Summers said. “take the slips and keep them folded until each person has taken one. Harry, you help little Dave.” Mr. Graves took the hand of the little boy, who came willingly with him up to the box. “Take a paper out of the box, Davy.” Mr. Summers said. Davy put his hand into the box and laughed. “Take just one paper.” Mr. Summers said. “Harry, you hold it for him.” Mr. Graves took the child’s hand and removed the folded paper from the tight fist and held it while little Dave stood next to him and looked up at him wonderingly.
“Nancy next,” Mr. Summers said. Nancy was twelve, and her school friends breathed heavily as she went forward switching her skirt, and took a slip daintily from the box “Bill, Jr.,” Mr. Summers said, and Billy, his face red and his feet over large, near knocked the box over as he got a paper out. “Tessie,” Mr. Summers said. She hesitated for a minute, looking around defiantly, and then set her lips and went up to the box. She snatched a paper out and held it behind her.
“Bill,” Mr. Summers said, and Bill Hutchinson reached into the box and felt around, bringing his hand out at last with the slip of paper in it.
The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, “I hope it’s not Nancy,” and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd.
“It’s not the way it used to be.” Old Man Warner said clearly. “People ain’t the way they used to be.”
“All right,” Mr. Summers said. “Open the papers. Harry, you open little Dave’s.”
Mr. Graves opened the slip of paper and there was a general sigh through the crowd as he held it up and everyone could see that it was blank. Nancy and Bill, Jr. opened theirs at the same time, and both beamed and laughed, turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads.
“Tessie,” Mr. Summers said. There was a pause, and then Mr. Summers looked at Bill Hutchinson, and Bill unfolded his paper and showed it. It was blank.
“It’s Tessie,” Mr. Summers said, and his voice was hushed. “Show us her paper, Bill.”
Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and forced the slip of paper out of her hand. It had a black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company office. Bill Hutchinson held it up, and there was a stir in the crowd.
“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box 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.”
Mr. Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said. gasping for breath. “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”
The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
-from The Lottery and Other Stories, by Shirley Jackson
– The New Yorker: Audio podcast discussion by fiction editor , Deborah Treisman. The Lottery, read by A. M. Homes.