The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a short story published in 1948, which was widely criticized by the public. People sent hateful letters to the author in order to express their displeasure with the events described, yet they did not understand the value this story carried. Shirley Jackson surely does not intend to show us how a poor woman was killed by mad crowd. She tells us a story of a cruel tradition called lottery and represents the issue of collective mentality.
The tradition of lottery, according to the story, consisted in stoning someone who was unfortunate enough to pick a piece of paper with a black dot on it. It was so old that people could not even imagine that there was another way of spending June 27th. The author describes how old the tradition was by stating that the black box used for its conduction “was put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born” and before that they had another one. (Diyanni 410) In fact, Old Man Warner is the one representing reluctance of people to reject outdated traditions. When the lottery starts Mrs. Adams tells him that “some places have already quit lotteries”. (Diyanni 413) His answer is frowning as he says that there is “nothing but trouble in that”. (Diyanni 413) This shows how strong are his believes and how inevitably he was once persuaded in the rightfulness of this cruel act by people surrounding him.
As we see, Mrs. Hutchinson is an average housewife. She is a cheerful woman who is joking while finding her place in the crowd and chatting with Mrs. Delacroix just an hour before she dies. I think it is the behavior of Mrs. Delacroix that has to be stressed upon here. First, she acts like a close friend of Tessie, but as soon as she finds out that Tessie is the one to be stoned “she selects a stone so large she has to pick it up with both hands” in order for it to be used as an instrument for the murder of the woman she has just spoken to with a smile. (Diyanni 415) Mr.Hutchinson is not willing to defend his wife either. Instead he tells her to shut up when she is trying to fight for justice.
In my opinion these are the examples of collective mentality. We see how friendship and family bonds are easily broken because of the demand and behavior of the society. Mrs. Delacroix and Mr. Hutchinson like Tessie, but the value of their relationships cannot be compared to their instinct of doing the same as everyone else does. They are a part of their community hence they lose the sense of individual identity and self-awareness and act in accordance with their group.
However, in this respect I find the behavior of children and little Davy the most shocking. Davy was Tessie’s youngest son. According to the story as soon as Mr. Summers ordered to “finish”, the villagers started picking up the stones and were ready to throw them. This is what the author tells us about the kids, “The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson few pebbles”. (Diyanni 415) I think this line proves that the act of stoning was a consequence of people’s collective mentality. I am sure that little Davy does not want to kill his mother, although, the pressure of the society and of his own peers make him decide in favor of what everyone else does. Collective thinking, therefore, is something a man gets used to irrespectively of age or ability. Once you become a subject of it, there is no way back and everything, even the relationship between the mother and her baby, can be impaired if the group you belong to is against it.
Even though Tessie screams and claims that it is unfair when she finds out that her husband and as a consequence her family is the one who “won the lottery”, I do not consider her to be an exception of collective mentality rule. The thing is that she stands up for herself and her family, but she would not do it for others, as she had nothing against the lottery before she knew that it was a member of her family who was to be stoned that day. She came to the square cheerful and happy. It is interesting how even after Tessie finds out that she will lose her life in such a horrible way, she says nothing about the stoning being cruel or inhumane. Instead, she says that they are to start all over because it is a mistake that it is her who is to be killed. This in its turn means that she would hold nothing against killing someone else. Indeed, the characters are not at all differentiated in this respect. All the villagers are afraid of their own misfortune, yet they cannot break the rule and stand up for each other or unite in order to reject the outdated tradition.
In some sense it is hard for me to understand why Shirley Jackson was widely criticized for her story, as her own negative and even ironic attitude to the lottery and stoning is clear. According to the story, people prepare for the lottery every year as if for an event really important to them. It takes place at the square in the centre of the village – the place for the main events. They let their children run and play gathering stones for future murder and chat with their friends about work as if a future murder is an ordinary thing. However, the most ironic is how the most carefree woman who is late is eventually the one who is to be stoned. The author shows how the lack of worrying for any human being turned out as her own death to Tessie.
Author’s negative attitude to the outdated tradition can be also noticed in her description of a black box used for the lottery. She narrates, “The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.” (Diyanni 410) It seems to me that villagers did not care much for this box and, therefore, for the act they associated with it.
Summing all it up, I think that The Lottery by Shirley Jackson represents the issues of collective mentality, outdated traditions and people’s weakness. It is with the help of this story we can find out how our unwillingness to care and stand up for others can turn into their indifference for us and what can be the consequences of inability to individualize ourselves.
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