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"The Lottery" is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. Written the same month it was published, it is ranked today as "one of the most famous short stories in the history of American literature". It has been described as "a chilling tale of conformity gone mad."
Response to the story was negative, surprising Jackson and The New Yorker. Readers canceled subscriptions and sent hate mail throughout the summer. The story was banned in the Union of South Africa. Since then, it has been accepted as a classic American short story, subject to critical interpretations and media adaptations, and it has been taught in middle schools and high schools for decades since its publication.
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Details of contemporary small town American life are contrasted with an annual ritual known as "the lottery." In a small village of about 300 residents, the locals are in an excited yet nervous mood on June 27. Children gather stones as the adult townsfolk assemble for their annual event, that in the local tradition is practiced to ensure a good harvest (one character quotes an old proverb: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon"), though there are some rumors that nearby communities are talking of "giving up the lottery."
In the first round of the lottery, the head of each family draws a small slip of paper from a black box; Bill Hutchinson gets the one slip with a black spot, meaning that his family has been chosen. In the next round, each Hutchinson family member draws a slip, and Bill's wife Tessie gets the marked slip. In keeping with tradition, each villager obtains a stone and begins to surround Tessie. The story ends as Tessie is stoned to death while she bemoans the unfairness of the situation.
The lottery preparations start the night before with Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves making the paper slips and the list of all the families. Once the slips are finished, they are put into a black box, which is stored overnight in a safe at the coal company. The next morning the townspeople start close to 10 a.m. in order to have everything done in time for lunch. First, the heads of the households draw slips until every head of household has a slip. The second round is for the family members to draw. For the first round, the men have to be over sixteen years of age, however in the second round everyone is eligible, no matter their age. After the drawing is over and the person is picked, the slips are allowed to fly off into the wind, after the Hutchinson's family draws the tickets.
Many readers demanded an explanation of the situation in the story, and a month after the initial publication, Shirley Jackson responded in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 22, 1948):
Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. 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.
Jackson lived in North Bennington, Vermont, and her comment reveals that she had Bennington in mind when she wrote "The Lottery." In a 1960 lecture (printed in her 1968 collection, Come Along with Me), Jackson recalled the hate mail she received in 1948:
One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker," she wrote sternly; "it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?"
The New Yorker kept no records of the phone calls, but letters addressed to Jackson were forwarded to her. That summer she regularly took home 10 to 12 forwarded letters each day. She also received weekly packages from The New Yorker containing letters and questions addressed to the magazine or editor Harold Ross, plus carbon copies of the magazine's responses mailed to letter writers.
Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even—in one completely mystifying transformation—made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
Helen E. Nebeker's essay, "'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force," in American Literature (March, 1974), claims that every major name in the story has a special significance.
By the end of the first two paragraphs, Jackson has carefully indicated the season, time of ancient excess and sacrifice, and the stones, most ancient of sacrificial weapons. She has also hinted at larger meanings through name symbolism. "Martin", Bobby’s surname, derives from a Middle English word signifying ape or monkey. This, juxtaposed with "Harry Jones" (in all its commonness) and "Dickie Delacroix" (of-the-Cross) urges us to an awareness of the Hairy Ape within us all, veneered by a Christianity as perverted as "Delacroix," vulgarized to "Dellacroy" by the villagers. Horribly, at the end of the story, it will be Mrs. Delacroix, warm and friendly in her natural state, who will select a stone "so large she had to pick it up with both hands" and will encourage her friends to follow suit ... "Mr. Adams," at once progenitor and martyr in the Judeo-Christian myth of man, stands with "Mrs. Graves"—the ultimate refuge or escape of all mankind—in the forefront of the crowd.
Fritz Oehlshlaeger, in "The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson Meaning of Context in 'The Lottery'" (Essays in Literature, 1988), wrote:
The name of Jackson's victim links her to Anne Hutchinson, whose Antinomian beliefs, found to be heretical by the Puritan hierarchy, resulted in her banishment from Massachusetts in 1638. While Tessie Hutchinson is no spiritual rebel, to be sure, Jackson's allusion to Anne Hutchinson reinforces her suggestions of a rebellion lurking within the women of her imaginary village. Since Tessie Hutchinson is the protagonist of "The Lottery," there is every indication that her name is indeed an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, the American religious dissenter. She was excommunicated despite an unfair trial, while Tessie questions the tradition and correctness of the lottery as well as her humble status as a wife. It might as well be this insubordination that leads to her selection by the lottery and stoning by the angry mob of villagers.
The 1992 episode of The Simpsons, "Dog of Death", features a scene referencing "The Lottery". During the peak of the lottery fever in Springfield, news anchor Kent Brockman announces on television that people hoping to get tips on how to win the jackpot have borrowed every available copy of Shirley Jackson's book The Lottery at the local library. One of them is Homer, who throws the book into the fireplace after Brockman reveals that, "Of course, the book does not contain any hints on how to win the lottery. It is, rather, a chilling tale of conformity gone mad." In her book Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy, Bernice Murphy comments that this scene displays some of the most contradictory things about Jackson: "It says a lot about the visibility of Jackson's most notorious tale that more than 50 years after its initial creation it is still famous enough to warrant a mention in the world's most famous sitcom. The fact that Springfield's citizenry also miss the point of Jackson's story completely [...] can perhaps be seen as an indication of a more general misrepresentation of Jackson and her work."
In addition to numerous reprints in magazines, anthologies and textbooks, "The Lottery" has been adapted for radio, live television, a 1953 ballet, films in 1969 and 1997, a TV movie, an opera, and a one-act play by Thomas Martin.
NBC's radio adaptation was broadcast March 14, 1951, as an episode of the anthology series NBC Presents: Short Story. Writer Ernest Kinoy expanded the plot to include scenes at various characters' homes before the lottery and a conversation between Bill and Tessie Hutchinson (Bill suggests leaving town before the lottery happens, but Tessie refuses because she wants to go shopping at Floyd Summers's store after the lottery is over). Kinoy also deleted characters, including two of the Hutchinsons' three children, and added at least one character, John Gunderson, a schoolteacher who publicly objects to the lottery being held, and at first refuses to draw. Finally, Kinoy included an ending scene describing the townspeople's post-lottery activities, and an afterword in which the narrator suggested, "Next year, maybe there won't be a Lottery. It's up to all of us. Chances are, there will be, though." The production was directed by Andrew C. Love. Cast members included Charles Seel, Gail Bonney, Irene Tedrow, Jack Nessler, James Nusser, Jeff Corey, Jeffrey Silver, John McGovern, Louise Lorimer, Steven Chase, and Margaret Brayton. Music was by Morris King. Don Stanley was the announcer.
Larry Yust's short film, The Lottery (1969), produced as part of Encyclopædia Britannica's 'Short Story Showcase' series, was ranked by the Academic Film Archive "as one of the two bestselling educational films ever." It has an accompanying ten-minute commentary film, Discussion of "The Lottery" by University of Southern California English professor Dr. James Durbin. Featuring the film debut of Ed Begley, Jr., Yust's adaptation has an atmosphere of naturalism and small town authenticity with its shots of pick-up trucks and townspeople in Fellows, California.
Anthony Spinner's feature-length TV film, The Lottery, which premiered September 29, 1996, on NBC, is a sequel loosely based on the original Shirley Jackson story. In Spinner's account, the annual lottery is held for religious reasons. Davey Hutchinson, now known as Jason Smith, has moved to Boston, but keeps having flashbacks to and nightmares about the death of his mother. His father (Bill Hutchinson, known as Albert Smith here) is now dying in a mental hospital, and asks his son to pour his ashes on his mother's grave in the town. Davey/Jason goes to the town, but is lied to by the townspeople and told that neither he nor his mother are from the town. He eventually learns that he is not only from the town, but participated in the stoning death of his mother when he was six years old. Smith challenges the town by fleeing and then returning with investigators. However, because the town has "plants" in the outside world, he is unable to expose their traditions. He winds up in a mental hospital being watched over by the same doctor his father had.
Director Daniel Sackheim filmed in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with a cast that included Keri Russell, Dan Cortese, Veronica Cartwright, Sean Murray, Jeff Corey, Salome Jens, and M. Emmet Walsh. It was nominated for a 1997 Saturn Award for Best Single Genre Television Presentation.