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The Element of Disquiet in The Lottery

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‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson is “possibly the most widely known American short story” (Coulthard 226) of a time. Yet critics, ever since the story’s publication during the post-World War years, have never managed to agree upon the meaning of the story or its significance. Interpretations vary widely ranging from rather subtle disagreements between whether mankind is perceived as a victim to blind tradition or holds within itself the potential for the arbitrary, irrational and hideous evil portrayed within the story to farfetched ones involving Bioethics (Terry and Williams) or Marxism (Kosenko).

Of course, each critic argues their points displaying magnificent depths of understanding and meticulous reading. And Jackson’s story, being the way it is, has elements in it to support all these interpretations and much more, even such interpretations which appear to be mutually exclusive.

The reason behind the story’s capacity to support such wide range of contrasting interpretations lies in its inherent ambiguity. A significant point about Jackson’s story, on which most critics more or less agree, is that the author intentionally avoids specific meaning giving the narrative a symbolic quality that almost verges on the allegorical. And as Lenemaja Friedman rightly comments “‘The Lottery’ may be symbolic of any of a number of social ills that mankind blindly perpetuates.” (64)

Early critics of the story, like Virgil Scott and Cleanth Brooks, commented on the symbolic nature of the narrative, though they have often disagreed on their interpretation of the symbols apart from finding out various technical shortcomings in it. The story has been critically examined time and again in terms of the scapegoat tradition of anthropology as analyzed in James G. Frazer’s epoch-making study of primitive societies, The Golden Bough. However as Nebeker points out “beneath the praise of these critics frequently runs a current of uneasiness, a sense of having been defrauded in some way by the development of the story as a whole.” This ‘uneasiness’ has also been variously explained. Scott blames the lack of a consistent strain of symbolism in the story:

“The story leaves one uneasy because of the author’s use of incidental symbolism…the black box, the forgotten timeless chant, the ritual salute – indeed the entire reconstruction of the mechanics of the lottery fail to serve the story as they might have.”  (21)

Brooks and Warren, on the other hand, criticize the very ambiguity of the story that allows it to fit in with so many interpretations at the same time. They point out that Jackson had “preferred to give no key to her parable but to leave its meaning to our inference” thus providing us with “a good deal of flexibility in our interpretations.” (74)

Helen Nebeker, a later critic, attempted to resolve this feeling of disquiet associated with the story by yet another unique approach. She has read into the story two separate stories and themes: the first one being the simple narrative with a shocking twist in the end; while the other one is a much more symbolic tale dealing with the victimization of mankind in the hands of blind tradition. She writes:

“ The critical ambivalence…stems from failure to perceive that ‘The Lottery’ really fuses two stories and themes into one fictional vehicle…. Only after the initial shock do disturbing question and nuances begin to assert themselves.” (188)

Contradicting Scott’s reading of the story, she claims that the ‘symbolic intentions’ of the author are by no means ‘incidental’. Nebeker, in fact leads us into a ‘Symbolic Tour de Force’ in her in-depth analysis of ‘The Lottery’. She points out that the story opens with the announcement of the date although Jackson never specifies the place, and in view of the ritual that is taking place in the village, the intelligent reader can not but notice the significance of the time. It is the Summer Solstice with all its associations with the ancient pagan rituals. Thus, before the end of the second paragraph, “Jackson has carefully indicated the season, time of ancient excesses and sacrifices, and the stones, most ancient of sacrificial weapons.” (187)

Proceeding in this vein, Nebeker brings out the symbolic significance of the box that contains the slips for the lottery including the lethal one marked by Mr. Summers himself that will bring down death on one of these villagers; the significance of the ‘three-legged stool’ on which the ancient box rests. Apparently all the major names in the story have their special significance. The first of the names to be mentioned are that of Bobby Martin, a Middle English name, according to Nebeker, that means ape, and of Delacroix that literally means ‘of the cross’.

In Nebeker’s interpretation, this is a conscious piece of symbolism attempted by the author signifying the ape or the beast hiding beneath the veneer of religion and civilization in all of us. In this context, it might be noted that other critics like Nathan Cervo has also worked in these lines to bring out the deep Biblical significance of the name Delacroix in Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. On the other hand, yet another critic, Peter Kosenko had interpreted these very names to arrive at his Marxist reading of the text. For him the name of Mr. Summers suggests ‘that he has become a man of leisure through his wealth’ while Mr. Grave’s name reflects the gravity of his post.

However, the conclusion that Nebeker arrives at with her analysis of the story’s symbolism is quite different from that of Kosenko. Challenging the reading of stalwarts like Brooks and Scott, she writes:

More than developing a theme which “deals with ‘scapegoating’, the human tendency to punish ‘innocent’ and often accidentally chosen victims for our sins” or one which points out “the awful double-ness of the human spirit – a double-ness that expresses itself in blended good neighborliness and cruelty…” Shirley Jackson has raised these lesser themes to one encompassing a comprehensive, compassionate, and fearful understanding of man trapped in the web spun from his own need to explain and control the incomprehensible universe around him, a need no longer answered by the web of old tradition. (189)

Thus Nebeker’s explanation of the ‘disquiet’ associated with the reading of the story lies in the form of the narrative that hides its symbolic significance till the end and then after the shock-treatment is revealed to be a ‘symbolic tour de force’ complete in all aspects.

However in analyzing the symbolism, and in her zeal to back her thematic analysis, which shows man as a hapless victim in the hands of tradition, Nebeker misses some rather basic facts about the story. As Coulthard, in his enlightening article in The Explicator points out, Jackson’s story is much more than simply “an assault on mindless cultural conformity.”

He says that the story is only on a superficial level “a transparent attack on blind obedience to tradition…” and backs this claim by pointing out the instances of irony and symbolism the author uses which prevents us from blaming only tradition and custom for the shocking ritual of the lottery indulged in annually by the villagers. “ It (The Lottery) is a grim, even nihilistic, parable of the evil in human nature,” (211) writes Coulthard, echoing critics like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Warren.

Coulthard finds the village community portrayed in the short story lacking in human bonding, love or warmth from the very first. The fact that Mrs. Hutchinson and Mrs. Delacroix appear to be friends of a sort, gossiping at the morning of the ritual or sharing a sisterly pat is all a show signifying nothing, for when the ritual stoning finally happens, this very Delacroix selects a stone “so large she had to pick it up with both hands.” Even the children of this literally godforsaken village seems actually enjoy the annual stoning to death of a living human being. As soon as they arrive at the village square, they began choosing the “smoothest and roundest stones”, the best kind for aiming, and fill their pockets with the stuff.

Kosenko, in his analysis, had pointed out that Mr. And Mrs. Adams, talking of villages that had given up on this brutal custom, represents humanity:

“Before Old Man Warner cuts them off, Mr. and Mrs. Adams, whose last name suggests a humanity that has not been entirely effaced, briefly mention other villages that are either talking of giving up the lottery or have already done so.  Probably out of deep-seated fear, they do not suggest that their village give it up; but that they hint at the possibility, however furtively, indicates a reservation–a vague sense of guilt–about what they are about to do.  The Adams’s represent the village’s best, humane impulses, impulses, however, which the lottery represses.”

However, as Coulthard points out Kosenko seem to have completely overlooked the fact that, it is none other than Mr. Adams who lead the group when the actual stoning begins. Old Warner, usually seen as the loudest supporter of the lottery, at least has the virtue of honesty insomuch as he actually believes in the tradition. If Steve Adams, who “was in the front of the crowd of villagers…”, is to be taken for the “village’s best, human impulses” then we must reconsider what we mean by the human impulses as it is. From such an in-depth analysis of the text and its symbols, Coulthard arrives at a conclusion quite different from Nebeker:

“It is not that the ancient custom of human sacrifice makes the villagers behave cruelly, but that their thinly veiled cruelty keeps the custom alive.” (212)

In Coulthard’s analysis, this revelation of the humankind’s capacity for irrational evil and potential for cruelty is what makes the story so disturbing and causes the much discussed disquiet. It is this revelation about the ancient Id governing human actions that makes the “psychological shock of the ritual murder in an atmosphere of modern, small-town normality” an event rather difficult to forget.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth and Warren, Robert P. Understanding Fiction. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959.

Coulthard, A.R. “Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’.” Short Story Criticism, Vol. 39:1, 2000:211-212.

Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975

Heilman, Robert B. Modern Short Stories, A Critical Anthology. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950

Neberker Helen G. “ ‘The lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force”. Short Story Criticism, Vol. 39:1, 2000:187-189.

Scott, Virgil. “Studies in the Short Story.” Instructor’s Manual. New York: 1968

Kosenko, Peter. “A Reading of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’” 20th December 2006. <http://www.netwood.net/~kosenko/jackson.html>

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