Cultural and historical context of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in a Historical and Cultural Context

Culture and history have always remained an important influence on literature. Literature has always mirrored the two forces that can be both cruel and inspiring in their own ways. Jackson’s The Lottery can also be seen in this context. Culture is a powerful influence on people’s lives which are bound by traditions and customs. Infact society and culture cannot be seen in separation from each other. So is literature, which generally mirrors the cultural values of its times. However, while culture can be a positive influence often, its hidden potential for evil has not gone undiscovered either.

Jackson discovers the macabre side of culture and its lethal potential in her short story ‘The Lottery’.  In the modern world, along with culture there are several forces like economic progress and globalization that have to a great extent balanced its negative impact. What unfolds in the Lottery reminds of none else but Taliban and its barbaric treatment of women. Jackson builds a powerful suspense that makes the brutality in the story deepen making the bloody event gloomier, shocking  and absurd.

It is how the audiences of the times when Jackson wrote it found the story – absurd and shocking. All is progressing well until readers suddenly arrive at a point where their imagination is shocked and minds terrorized by the cruelty Tessie Hutchinson is slain with. As a short story, Jackson’s work is quite engaging and quite pleasant until the sudden deathly end comes.  The irony lies in the fact that it is a kind of lottery where the winner gets to lose his/her life.

Published in 1948, The Lottery was heavily criticized initially for the kind of horror of culture and customs it evokes. The subject matter was difficult to digest for most who felt inclined to condemn it.  A reflection of Shirley Jackson’s own life events could also be felt in the story. The author herself had led a troubled life of identity crisis and depression. It is why several critics argue that its influence has been on her works too. Writing provided her the solace that other things in her life could not afford.

As an adult, Jackson had to combat severe anxiety and depression for which she was forced to leave her college.  However, the matter that Jackson raised in her work was related to superstitions and yet it was a macabre subject. Superstitions can kill but the way they do in The Lottery also brings out what kind of barbarism the society is capable of. In several societies around the world, traditions have always been considered above science and common sense. The story presents a common English village where all the general things are happening except one thing that the readers discover at the end.

 It all looks simple and innocent until the villagers grow murderous and the Gothic event follows. The entire village had been preparing for the event and no one knew that whose turn it would be. It could have been a kid or an older woman. Tessi is a middle-aged woman and Jackson does not reveal her card until the one stone hits Tessie. However, the enthusiasm with which the whole village had been preparing for this barbaric event shows the importance of the traditions and rituals for the human society.

The practice is being abolished in the other villages but the village elders are reluctant. The oldest one in the village has been a part of this ritual at least 79 times. There is also a feminist angle to the short story. It is because the person who is murdered is a female and the ones who argue in the favor of these rituals are the village males and especially the elders who have enjoyed the custom since they were kids. They are caught in a cultural trap and cannot throw out an evil custom that they have followed for long. The innocent victim or its family cannot protest or retaliate because the entire society is standing on the other side.

The era in which the story was written was one of social unrest and war. At the time the world was confronted with brutal realities of war and terror of the atomic bomb. Apart from that, the society was still not very well developed. It was also the time of rise of communism. The story also deals with feminist issues. At the time of the publication of the story, the Western society including the US was still largely patriarchal. The subordinate position of the women in the society and there helpless status are also portrayed in the story. A Tessi crying that what they are doing to her is not justified evokes sympathy and mercy.  However, her cries failed to evoke any sympathy from the people who have known her. The second she has been selected the winner, the people around her change.

The horror in the story leaves a lasting impression on reader’s mind because of its suddenness. There are so many questions that come to mind. Can people be as merciless in the name of tradition? Has humanity been as cruel to its females? Can innocent looking people in a village society have the capability of as much evil? In how many corners of the world such sacrifices are still made? Jackson’s The Lottery just unveils the horrors hidden within a civilized society with a dominant male mindset. However, the sarcasm is also more than evident in the story. People would blindly follow these customs even if they  are turning them into animals. Traditions, customs and superstition have never rhymed with scientific and rational thought and never will.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.