The most terrifying thing about Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is its ordinariness. The story takes place in a small town (Jackson lived in North Bennington, Vt.) on a summer morning. The townsfolk gather, they try to make their children behave, they chat about taxes and the weather, they kill a neighbor. It’s all very orderly, a traditional ritual carried out according to well-defined rules. They’ll be home in time for lunch.
Sorry to give away the plot. I’m assuming you read the story in high school, as I did. It scared me back then. It’s even scarier now.
The victim is chosen by lottery: slips of paper pulled from a box. Everyone in town participates, down to the smallest child. There’s uneasiness before the names are drawn, and relief afterward: Everyone but the victim thinks, “Thank heaven it’s not me.” The victim keeps saying “It’s not fair,” but no one will listen to her.
It’s a story about how societies cohere by scapegoating, defining someone as the Other. The group selects a victim, for no reason except that they need someone to be the target of murderous aggression. Before her name is drawn, the victim is chatted with, smiled at; she’s just one more villager, until she isn’t.
It’s a story about complicity. There’s a docile and implacable willingness to participate in a time-honored process, even though the end result is an atrocity. Nobody says, “This is crazy, murderous, we can’t do this.” Nobody says, “Why?” Nobody says, “Stop.” Everyone unthinkingly takes part, so no one is responsible.
It’s a story about helplessness and about hopelessness. The process is bland, arbitrary, inexorable, and merciless. The victim has no recourse.
Jackson wrote “The Lottery” in 1948, the same year George Orwell published “1984.” People were struggling to comprehend the institutionalized violence of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. How could the citizens of these countries have sat by or even participated while so many of their neighbors were targeted, arrested, taken away, and killed? (Eugenia Ginzburg, in her brilliant memoir, “Journey Into the Whirlwind,” recounts how in Moscow in 1937 she would wonder, every time an acquaintance was arrested, what that person had done wrong. It was not until she and her husband were arrested that she realized the answer: Nothing.)
Part of what makes “The Lottery” so appalling is that no one in the story is appalled, except the victim. This is a society that is chummy and close-knit, and yet there is no moral compass or moral imagination. Mob violence is so deeply ingrained that it’s downright domestic. The people who organize the lottery are the same good citizens who run the square dances, the teen club, and the Halloween program.
The power of Jackson’s fiction is that she compels us to imagine evil from both sides. We are the victim, pleading and arguing to no avail, wishing to appeal to the authorities while knowing that the authorities are the ones who have set this terrible process in motion. But we are also the townsfolk: relieved that we’re not the ones being singled out, relieved that we’re still safe, uneasy at what’s happening but unsure of what could be different, failing to protest injustice or to protect an imperiled neighbor, passively accepting that nothing can be changed.
Halloween 2017. “The Lottery” has never seemed creepier or more pertinent. Read it. Re-read it. And watch how Jackson makes us feel what it is to be cornered by the monster, while at the same time suggesting that the monster is us.Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’