Academic journal article British and American Studies

Sacred Violence in Shirley Jackson's the Lottery

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Sacred Violence in Shirley Jackson's the Lottery

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery (1949) is a text frequently read in American high schools and colleges, and one I myself have assigned many times to students in writing classes. Invariably, this text about a small North American community that comes together in late June every year to select one person, chosen by drawing lots in two stages, who is then ritually stoned by everyone else, provokes a strong reaction from students, much as it did upon its publication in 1948. At the time, the story sparked the largest number of responses from readers in the history of the New Yorker, the magazine that originally published it, with many outraged at the brutality it depicted and a few even requesting to know where the village was so that they could go visit it. The image of a peaceful, 20th century farming community employing the ancient, biblical-style punishment of stoning on a randomly chosen victim baffled many American readers, who were either unable to comprehend this juxtaposition or were offended by it.

This short story has also elicited a number of interpretations from literary critics and what I propose to do now is outline some of the responses before moving on to analyze the short story using René Girard's (1966) ideas on the relationship between violence and the sacred as a framework.

2. Critical interpretations

Randy Bobbitt (1994:8) identified three categories into which most interpretations of The Lottery may fall: it may be understood as a story about a) the power of traditions, b) an agricultural fertility ritual, or c) the tendency to scapegoat individuals. In the first case, the emphasis is usually placed on how the tradition of holding the lottery is perpetuated. For example, Old Man Warner stands in for the voice of the older generation who proclaim that what was once must always be - "always been a lottery!" the old man says loud enough for all to hear (Jackson 1949:215). He denounces anyone who would give up the lottery as "a pack of fools" who would lead the community back to pre-historic times. Indeed, Old Man Warner seems to even derive his sense of identity from having survived so many times. The placing of stones in Little Davy's hand so that he too has to participate can be seen as an element of perpetuating the lottery for future generations - not only are the young taught the rules of the game at an early age but now there is no way he can later back out of the tradition and claim that others had killed his mother, for he too had joined in. The role of ritual is also mentioned as a way for individuals to distance themselves from any personal responsibility in the killing.

Old Man Warner plays the main role in discussions of the lottery as an ancient fertility rite. It is he who reminds everyone of the saying "Lottery in June, com be heavy soon" (215), thus suggesting that, for whatever reason people do it now, the original purpose of the lottery was a sacrifice for a good harvest.

The scapegoating line of interpretation associates the stoning of a victim with the ancient Hebrew tradition of choosing a scapegoat to carry off the sins of the community at large and is often seen as a statement about man's inhumanity to man. Brooks and Warren (1971:74), for instance, cite the story as a tale about the "all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat", while others go back to Jackson's own statement about the story shortly after publication that "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" (qtd. in Kosenko 1985:27).

It should be noted that many of these categories overlap and, in choosing a particular critical approach, critics will often draw on elements of more than one of them. In a feminist interpretation, for example, the choice of a housewife as the scapegoat is invariably emphasized and attention is drawn to the similarity of the victim's name, Tessie Hutchinson, with the New England Puritan rebel Anne Hutchinson, who fought against the tradition of male authority in spiritual matters. …

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