Short Story Review: “The Lottery”
A lesson on what happens when people refuse to think for themselves
That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It
Have you ever read a short story that stayed with you long after you put it down? Since my high school days, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson has been that story for me. Its unsettling message remains relevant: Our inclination to blindly follow tradition and give in to groupthink without questioning is simultaneously dangerous yet a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature. This readiness to conform has led to significant horrors and much suffering throughout history.
“I was just following orders” The unaccepted excuse used by Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, and others during The Nuremburg Trials
We Were Not Supposed to Think
The less you know about “The Lottery,” going in, the more you’ll enjoy it. In short, it is the story of a small town’s tradition — its ritualistic annual ceremony that brings the townspeople together, possibly in hopes of a successful harvest come fall.
The story's structure perfectly exemplifies how symbols, such as a worn, dirty, black box, aid in telling the real story simmering beneath the seemingly banal activity taking place in front of our eyes.
Just as with works by Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lottery,” lures us in with the charm of small-town life:
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock...” Source: “The Lottery”
But soon, we realize that every character, every object handled, and every spoken word serves as a symbol for the larger commentary of willful ignorance or avoidance of responsibility in the face of tradition and peer pressure. Jackson expertly utilizes these symbols to enrich this examination of the dark side of human rituals and social norms.