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The poor suckers who first read the story in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker.
We can imagine it now: a literary lad in a Don Draper fedora or a bookish lass in a crisp knee-length skirt. They flip to the table of contents and see a story, adorably titled "The Lottery." What could it be about? A sweet story about a poor guy who wins millions? A family that gets a new yacht? A woman who wins an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas?
And then they start reading. Pearls are clutched. Cigarettes are angrily crushed out. Innocence is lost.
Because "The Lottery" ain't about that kind of lottery. It's about a small Vermont town that holds a lottery to determine who...will be ritually stoned to death. As in, stoned with rocks. As in, killed by fellow townspeople throwing stones until the victim's skull is crushed.
"The Lottery" doesn't end with a joyous winner screaming, "I'm going to Disneyland!" It ends with a desperate woman screaming, "It isn't fair, it isn't right."
Unsurprisingly, this story caused major controversy when it was first published. Shirley Jackson's implicit critique of the brutality underlying the rituals and values of America's small towns outraged magazine readers, many of who petulantly cancelled their New Yorker subscriptions. (Check out the Encyclopedia Britannica for more on the tale's publication history.)
The anonymous, generic village in which "The Lottery" is set, in addition to the vicious twist the story gives to a common American ritual, enhanced the contemporary reader's uneasy sense that the group violence in the story could be taking place anywhere...or everywhere. Remember, guys: this was 1948. The super-conservative 1950's were dawning. The Red Scare was kicking off.
People really, really did not want to be reminded of the evil that lurked in the hearts of men...especially in a story that showed that evil triumphing over all-American family values. After all, WWII had just been completed. The good guys had won. But Shirley Jackon's story held up an upsetting mirror to the American Dream and showed us that, even though fascism had been vanquished, there was still more than enough terrifying madness to go around.
Luckily, enough people loved "The Lottery" that became one of the most widely-anthologized short stories of all time...and helped establish Jackson's position as one of the great American horror writers.
If you've even had to talk to your mom (or pretty much any other authority figure) you've probably heard the refrain, "If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?"
And your answer was probably "No." You're not a lemming or a BASE jumper; you don't even like heights.
But Shirley Jackson thinks you're lying. She thinks you—and anyone and everyone—would race off that bridge if your community decided it was necessary. According to her, while individuals may be great, a group of people is whole 'nother animal.
An animal that eats its own.
"The Lottery" is a story of a small town basically devouring a member of its own community. And it's one of the most horrifying texts you'll ever encounter. Forget Saw V or Hostel II: "The Lottery" is truly terrifying.
Like so many great horror stories, this one has a load of social commentary. "The Lottery" is like the world's creepiest public service announcement against peer pressure. It's similar to those after school specials that warn against drinking beer or disobeying your parents—except Jackson is warning against unthinkingly following along with a group.
But we want to be clear: "The Lottery" isn't about short-lived, peer pressure-fueled mass hysteria like the Salem Witch Trials. No, this is about a regular, established community ritual. Everyone in this sleepy Vermont town simply accepts the fact that, every once in a while, some neighbor or other will be brutally killed via blunt trauma.
In fact, people are psyched about Lottery Day, because the exclusion (and murder) of one person = a bonding experience for the rest of the community. This murder day is a grand tradition—the townspeople think of it like a Thanksgiving Fun Run or Fourth of July Parade, only with a messier clean-up.
Jackson is giving us all a clear warning about the dangers of peer pressure. But unlike those after school specials, she's too smart to think that peer pressure is only something that happens to teenagers. And she also knows that peer pressure doesn't just turn dangerous when it's being applied to fuel a passing fad.
Some of the most dangerous peer pressure can come from more established members of the community...and it can masquerade as community tradition. (Think of the epidemic of lynchings in the Jim Crow South.)
So we think the question about jumping off a bridge should be tweaked to fit Jackson's creepy story. If people started asking, "If everyone started throwing stones at an innocent neighbor until they died, would you?" we think way more people would start thinking for themselves.
The Lottery, 1969
Academic Film Archive ranked this movie "as one of the two best-selling educational films ever." It follows the story quite faithfully.
The Lottery, 1996
This is the 1996, made for TV version of Jackson's classic. It features Keri Russell of Felicity.
The Lottery, 2007
A 2007 short film.
Part 1 of the 1969 film
The film is quite faithful to the story.
Part 2 of the 1969 film
A photograph of the author.
Here's some further reading for those interested in learning more about the possible inspirations for "The Lottery."
Jackson Research Resources
For those of you who want to do additional Jackson research.