The Lottery

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery has been made into a film at least three times. The first is a very good dramatization made in the late 1960s or early 1970s and was generally seen in classrooms. (If anyone has a copy of it they want to sell, either on VHS or 16mm film, please e-mail me.) This is a wonderful version. (I love the part where the old woman hands the toddler a rock and says in her kindly grandmother voice, “Here, Davey!”) Another version was made in 1986, but I didn’t see it. I heard it sucked.

I did see the 1996 version foisted upon us by Lifetime (I think that’s where it was shown). They added a bunch of crap that was never in the short story, like the father dying and asking to be buried in the small town. They turned it from a chilling horror story into an amateur detective drama.

If you haven’t read The Lottery, look it up. It’s on the 'net, and it’s a great story.

And I was serious about the 16mm print…

It’s good to see something about the Lottery that doesn’t involve “What would you do if…”

One thing that always bothered me about this story is that, IIRC, they never really explain why they do this. I’m sure that’s part of Jackson’s suspense, but it just kind of bugs me.

Any ideas (personal interpretation) of why?

That always bugged me too.
But I think that’s part of it. It’s so completely irrational that that’s the point. One can imagine the village elders of long ago sitting around and one of them says “heeeey…I’ve got a great idea! Let’s go stone someone.”
It’s the way it’s always been done and heaven help us if we change like those other towns.

My goodness.
I hit submit and then I realized I gave away the entire story. I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intention.

It was always my impression from reading the story that the lottery was a time-honored tradition whose roots had long been forgotten, but which people continued to dutifully perform simply because they always had.

Um, I thought there was some sort of line at the beginning of the story, something like “Lottery in June, corn will be up soon,” which may imply that it was some kind of crop fertility ritual once upon a time. After all, why bother marking the time in a phrase when you already know what happens in June?

(Just an interpretation I read once back in high school, I believe. Makes sense to me, anyway.)

So there’s “always been the lottery”. And it’s not just this one town, but several towns in the region. The Lottery is part of their religion. The Lottery came about a long time ago, and no one remembers why. It just is. A person from outside of the area can say, “The Lottery has no effect on the harvest. Sometime a long time ago, there was a good harvest, and it happened to coincide with [I guess I have to **spoil** here, otherwise it’s hard to talk about it] the death of a villager.” They would say, “It is the way of things.” It’s like the Jewish and Muslim prohibition on pork. We know today that contaminated pork can give a person trichynosis. We can tell them it’s safe to eat and there is no longer a need for the prohibition, but they would tell us that their beliefs come from God and not from some know-it-all scientist.

So the Lottery happens because it’s always happened. Some Reformists have given it up, but the old people and “religious conservatives” stick to it.

For those of you who are interested in reading The Lottery but don’t have the time to look it up, here is the text.


Yeah. Like how they used to do blood sacrifices in more primitive times to make it more fertile. Perhaps this is just a town that didn’t let go of its sacrifice. I suppose we are such creatures of habits.

Shirley Jackson and her family lived in a small town, and was repeatedly stoned by the traditionalists for her refusal to follow their acceptable standards for how to live. She wrote some humorous family drivel that takes a lighthearted look at this, but in reality it was a horrible way for her to live.

<hijack re. Jackson’s “humorous family drivel”>

I love Jackson’s family stories… I first read them (in the collections Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons) in junior high and just thought they were hysterical. Later, when I married and had kids and decided to stay home with them I used these stories as models for being a cool, thinking-type of mom rather than a stepford-style soccer mom (although the term “soccer-mom” did not exist when I became one). Still later, I read a biography of Jackson that outlined her struggles with alcohol and depression – and, as crazy4chaucer said, how unhappy she was in the role she ended up in. It broke my heart – that I styled myself (successfully and happily) on a fiction she created and was so unhappy in. I’ve never reread that bio and have done very little further research on Jackson’s “real” life… as I said, it nearly broke my heart.


By using the word “drivel” for her family stories, I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy them. I do! I have copies of both Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons and I love them. I’ve loved them since I was a kid myself. I was referring more to the fact that she herself tended to consider them drivel. They brought in a few bucks, which one can always use, and they kept her name in front of publishers and the reading public.

She was an amazing woman, and the biographies I’ve read have only served to further that impression of her. However, she was also a profoundly unhappy woman. Her genius came with a heavy price, and she paid it.

Are there any good bios of Jackson? I started one many years ago, but the author didn’t do really basic research, and I quit because I didn’t trust it. The book talked about “We have always lived in the Castle” (one of my favorites) and got the narrator’s death wrong. Can anyone recommend a reliable biography?

And I loved the family books. They got me through a miserable time in high school, when she modeled what it means to not be one of those who fits in.

I have always remembered one of her short stories, about a woman waiting for a man to come pick her up. She was a master of not saying something, but making it crystal clear.

Sure, crazy4chaucer, I didn’t think you were slamming her family stories – I knew what you meant. She didn’t have enough respect for most of her short stories, which, as you say, she wrote for income, sold to magazines and considered drivel. They weren’t though, IMO. Jackson was brilliant – her books were remarkable, but I love her short stories more. She’ll always be remembered for The Lottery, of course, but even her more commercial stories had a real edge. She was a profoundly talented lady.

Punkyova – the bio I read was Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer. It was damned depressing but I believe it was well researched. As I said, I only read it the once. For short stories, I recommend Come Along With Me, which included several short stories, as well as what there was of her last novel. It was edited by her widower, BTW and published posthumously. Also published posthumously – The Magic of Shirley Jackson, which featured some previously unpublished stories. And I very highly recommend the recently published Just An Ordinary Day which contains several of her published stories from magazines of the '40s and '50s and a bunch of uncollected stories found in an attic trunk by her children. Several of these are family stories. Her children seem to remember her affectionately, BTW, which gave me hope that her real life wasn’t as unrelentingly grim as Oppenheimer indicated. We all have our ups and downs, I suppose and who among us could withstand the magnifying glass of a scholarly biographer unscathed? Tell you what – somebody read Oppenheimer’s bio and tell me if my mental block against it is unwarranted – I read it in 1988 when I had 2 babies under the age of 2 years, the younger having been born prematurely and just diagnosed with Cerbral Palsy… Possibly I wasn’t at my most stable at the time and I ought to reread it.


Others have said it too.
I always interpreted it as a crop/fertility rite.