Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Recounting the Lottery

When it was first published (by The New Yorker back in 1948), Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” received a lot of attention. The full text is available online, here, where it tops off the site’s list of “Twenty Great American Short Stories.” I read it in an anthology (Norton Anthology of Short Fiction). All of this speaks highly of the story’s enduring acclaim. However, I don’t think it’s aged well. (Please read the story before going on, because I’ll spoil the ending, on whose mystery the entire tale is propped up.)

“The Lottery” creeps up on you: it starts as a seemingly bucolic celebration in a small town. You see people walking up to a wooden box and drawing slips of paper to see who’ll win the lottery. The person who wins gets stoned to death. It turns out to be a fertility rite.

Both the way to pick people and the way to kill them sound very biblical. They are. There’s a strong sense hovering about that adulterers get stoned in the Bible. Well, yes and no. In Christ’s famous defense of the adulterous woman, the Pharisees challenged him by saying that the Mosaic law “commanded us to stone such [adulterous] women” (John 8:5; NIV). However, the Pentateuch merely says that adulterous people will be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22); no stones are mentioned, although one could presume they were meant to be used. There is, however, a scene in the Bible that combines selection by casting lots with stoning in a way that looks like a blueprint for “The Lottery.” I mean Achan’s execution in Joshua 7:16-26. In that scene, people are chosen by tribes, then the selection is narrowed down until only one culprit is left standing. It is Achan; “Then all Israel stoned him” (Joshua 7:25; NIV). (One major difference, though: Achan was guilty as charged; the stoned person in “The Lottery” was guilty by mere chance.)

Coming back to Jackson’s story, my problem with it is that it’s just too obvious. Take the way it builds up to the ending. As soon as Mrs. Hutchinson comes on stage, you know something bad is coming her way: “Mrs. Hutchinson came hurriedly along the path to the square, her sweater thrown over her shoulders, and slid into place in the back of the crowd.” Too much attention is paid to her. The narrator is evidently lavishing words on her for a reason. It would’ve been great if some totally unknown individual had been chosen, after Mrs. Hutchinson had been under the spotlight all story long. Our capacity for surprise is let down, however, when we see it happen just as we expected: the noisy and disarrayed Mrs. Hutchinson is picked.

The other apparent surprise is the real nature of the lottery. A bit past the middle of the story, we hear this sinister proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” Now you know what’s coming: of course, a fertility ritual. The person chosen will be sacrificed so that the lands will be replenished and the crops will grow handsomely. We read the rest of the story just waiting to see who’s chosen (of course, Mrs. Hutchinson), and what it is exactly they’ll do to that person. Then it’s over, and you’re left with a tale that has a half-hearted surprise ending, and that doesn’t really glitter with its language or its characters. (Okay, here’s one thing I liked: how it shows people accepting the logic of rituals without questioning them, even if those rituals are hideous, as long as they seem fair and socially useful and deep-rooted.)

I couldn’t help but compare “The Lottery” with Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” which I’ve praised lavishly. The comparison left “The Lottery” in a bad spot. Barthelme is evocative. You can keep reading “The School,” and enjoy how it’s built, and how you can’t really pin it down, no matter how much you try. The more you read, the more provocative it becomes, and the more sinister, too. It’s brilliant. Of course, decades separate one story from the other, but, as I said earlier, I don’t think “The Lottery” has aged well.

By the way, it would’ve been nice if Kevin González’s “Lotería” had made a coy reference to Shirley Jackson’s story of the same name. If there was one, I must have missed it.

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