The Scapegoat Mechanism: Reflections on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” by Leonard Engel
I recently taught a course for Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR) of Greater New Haven, which I’ve been doing for the past few years. The course was titled Masterpieces of Short Fiction in American Literature, and in the last class we discussed stories by three women from the mid-to-late 20th century: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”; Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”; and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In addition to the dynamism of each story and its underlying meanings, there is a fascinating backstory to each (which I hadn’t known before). For those who are not familiar with them or don’t remember them, each story, in a different way, dramatizes temptation, sin, the power of evil, and possible redemption. They are complex, and tightly written.
June 26, 2023, marks the 75th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s publication of “The Lottery” in the New Yorker. [Note—What follows contains spoilers.] The story is set in a small New England village that holds a lottery on a specified day every spring just before noon (conveniently arranged so folks can get home in time for “dinner”). When everyone has gathered in the village’s center, a large box containing blank slips of paper (except for one, which has a black mark) is brought out. The names of families are alphabetically called. Once the family is assembled in front of the box, the oldest to the youngest picks a slip from the box. What is so jarring is the casual, matter-of-fact way things proceed, as though the winner will receive a specially baked homemade pie.
The conversations of those waiting for the lottery to begin concern ordinary things: the weather, the fields prepared for planting, the seeds to be planted. People’s names are ordinary, too, like those of one’s neighbors: first names Tessie, Steve, and Joe; last names Adams, Hutchinson, Summers, and Watson. However, there are subtle hints that things are not quite right, like the piles of stones on the outer circle of the village’s center and the groups of boys hanging around the stones, guarding them. There is even some talk of a neighboring village that is considering ending its lottery, and that other towns that already have:
Old Man Warner snorted. “Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves. . . . Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ . . . There’s always been a lottery.”
If the reader hasn’t picked up Jackson’s subtlety yet, the dour outcome is imminent. Tessie Hutchinson, who arrives a little late (having forgotten what day it was), even jokes with Mr. Summers, who casually remarks, “Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie.” She replies, grinning, “Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe?” The ordinariness of the people, the day, and the language does not prepare us for what is to come. The slip of paper Tessie picks has the black mark on it, and when she discovers it, her response is also characteristically “ordinary.” She defends herself and screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.” A few seconds prior to these words, Jackson reveals her central theme:
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered the stones. . . . Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands. . . . The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davey Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Speaking about the gospel of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Bishop Robert Barron has invoked what René Girard called “the scapegoat mechanism.” Of the scribes and Pharisees who bring the woman to Jesus, Bishop Barron says, “Their eagerness to find a victim is testimony to the insatiable human need for scapegoats.” However, as Bishop Barron points out, Jesus refuses
to contribute to the energy of the gathering storm: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus directs the energy of scapegoating violence back toward the accusers. He unveils the dangerous secret that the unstable order of the society has been predicated upon scapegoating. Then we see, at least in seminal form, the new order when Jesus says to the woman: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Unfortunately, there is no Savior for poor Tessie Hutchinson, who fully participates in the lottery until she learns that she’s “the winner.” The story’s marvelously understated final six words—“and then they were upon her”—seal the horror of what follows.
The publication of “The Lottery” caused an immediate and volatile reaction. The New Yorker claimed that hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions. Many wrote letters, calling the story “outrageous,” “gruesome,” and “utterly pointless.” Other reactions were even more strident: “I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’” “I read it while soaking in the tub . . . and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all.” “I will never buy The New Yorker again.” There were phone calls, too, but the magazine didn’t record them or note how many there were. Even Jackson’s parents were displeased: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” they wrote, “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?” (I would like to have seen their daughter’s face when she read this letter.)
Some scholars have compared the story to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which the New Yorker had also published. The critic Ruth Franklin wrote that
“The Lottery” takes the classic theme of man’s inhumanity to man and gives it an additional twist: the randomness inherent in brutality. It anticipates the way we would come to understand the twentieth century’s unique lessons about the capacity of ordinary citizens to do evil—from the Nazi camp bureaucracy, to the Communist societies that depended on the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor and the [psychological] experiments [that demonstrated] how little is required to induce strangers to turn against each other.
Even Harold Ross, the renowned editor of the New Yorker, was nonplussed. He called Jackson at her home in Vermont and gingerly asked if she had any comment, anything more to say about the story. Her reply was simply, “No, nothing in particular, it was just a story I wrote.” But she was astonished by the reaction and wondered how anyone with literary intelligence living in the 20th century would not be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.
The New Yorker, uncharacteristically, responded to the protests, trying to lessen damage to the magazine: “Miss Jackson’s story can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways. It’s just a fable. . . . She has chosen a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.” This statement probably didn’t do much to restore confidence in the magazine or its editorial staff, nor ease Jackson’s mind.
Over time, however, things changed, and readers began to see value in the tale—especially writing teachers, who admired the artful compression of its plot and the subtle ways it gathers dramatic tension. It began to be published in short story collections for college English courses (which is where I first read it), and even in some textbooks designed for high schools. In the years that followed, Jackson eventually was able to speak and even write about the experience. She still received “off the wall” comments and questions, but was able to respond with irony and sharp wit. She exhibited both in a lecture she gave at Bennington College, where her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman taught. Titled “Biography of a Story,” her talk was later published by Hyman in a collection of pieces entitled Come Along with Me, and contains the backstory I find so interesting.
Jackson begins by relating how on the morning of June 28, 1948, she walked down to the post office in her little Vermont town to pick up her mail, have pleasant conversation with the postmaster, and return home
never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic. By the next week I had had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the post master was out of the question, because he wasn’t speaking to me. June 28, 1948, was the day The New Yorker came out with a story of mine in it. It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured . . . that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.
Jackson goes on to describe the process of writing the story “on a bright June morning,” how it came to her fully formed while “pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller” on a return trip from the grocery store. Neither her agent nor the fiction editor who accepted the story for publication much cared for it, but they felt it had commercial potential. The magazine came out on June 28, and by mid-July, she reports, “Millions of people, and my mother, had taken a pronounced dislike to me.” She recalls receiving 300 letters throughout the summer, with only 13 that “spoke kindly to me.” “Judging from these letters,” she writes, “people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horribly afraid of being laughed at.”
She takes stock of the passing of time, and how the story—and the audience’s reactions—have changed:
In the years since then . . . the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even . . . made into a ballet, [and] the tenor of letters I receive has changed. . . . People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
After quoting at length from multiple letters she’s received, she concludes with one from a reader who calls her “a true prophet and true disciple of the true gospel of the redeeming light.” Responding to his queries, she writes:
Of all the questions asked me about “Lottery,” I feel there is only one I can answer fearlessly and honestly, and that is the question which closes this gentleman’s letter. When will the next revelations be published, he wants to know, and I answer roundly, never. I am out of the lottery business for good.
The full text of “Biography of a Story” is available from the Library of America and highly recommended for those who want an inside look at Jackson’s creative process and first brush with fame. At the time when she composed “The Lottery,” Jackson did not consider herself a professional writer; she was just a busy housewife who, after feeding her children dinner, reading to them, and putting them to bed, would go to her desk and try to write stories. But in this one story, she hit the jackpot—she won the lottery with “The Lottery,” which happened to change her life and provide us with an amazing and quite humorous backstory as well. ♦
Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at Len.Engel@quinnipiac.edu.
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