by Shirley Jackson
The Watsons and the Dunbars
The Watsons and the Dunbars are both intriguing because Jackson specifies that their family arrangements break the father-as-head-of-the-family-drawing-the-lottery-papers norm. Mrs. Dunbar must draw because her boy, Horace, is sixteen and too young. Where is her husband? Home with a broken leg – or is he? Critic Helen Nebeker claims that a child of the Dunbar family may have been killed at the lottery in the previous year or two, leaving the husband unwilling to observe another lottery (source). She cites as evidence the unusual attention that the crowd pays when Janey draws for her family: a woman watching says "Go on, Janey" and another says, "There she goes" (27).
Similarly, the Watson family appears to be missing its father: the Watson boy must draw for his mother. And when all of the strips have been drawn, the crowd wonders, "'Who is it?,' 'Who's got it?,' 'Is it the Dunbars?,' 'Is it the Watsons?'" Clearly, these families must be special for some reason – and it seems compelling to imagine that it's because they've lost one of their own to the lottery.
This is a fascinating proposition because, if we read the story this way, it demonstrates something extremely curious about this ritual. The notion of the lottery's natural, necessary conduct seems impossible for the villagers to argue with. They truly seem to believe, as they tell Tess Hutchinson, that the lottery's fair because they all take the same chance – as though the fact that they all draw strips of potentially fatal paper makes it right to kill one of their own every year. However, the ritual itself seems to be totally separate from the villagers' sympathy for the families in mourning. Family may lose meaning during the lottery, when children kill their mothers, husbands murder their wives, and fathers stone their sons. But after the lottery, family becomes meaningful again as the bond most important to these villagers. How do we explain this annual two hour disconnect?
While the lottery itself appears absolutely fair to the villagers, they recognize it as a tough stroke of luck for the victims being stoned: it sucks, but that's life. It's like the lottery is a natural disaster – a flood or an earthquake – rather than a man-made event; that's how powerful tradition is. The lottery seems about as much a matter of choice as a lightning strike; there's an inevitability to it that makes the villagers the executors, rather than the instigators, of this tradition. They really can't wrap their minds around the idea that they could just stop, of their own accord.