By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the most important quotations in Shirley Jackson’s well-known 1948 short story ‘The Lottery’? This deeply unsettling story about a village which annually selects a blood sacrifice from its inhabitants in the hope of bringing about a good harvest is widely studied and discussed, but it deals with some big ideas and moral questions.
Let’s home in one a handful of the best-known quotations from Shirley Jackson’s story and explore – and attempt to explain – their significance.
‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’.
This line is quoted by Old Man Warner, who scoffs at the news that a neighbouring village is considering giving up the annual ritual of the lottery. This elder of the village has observed many lotteries over the years and decades he has lived there (he proudly declares he has taken part in seventy-seven lotteries), and clearly holds fast to the tradition of the annual sacrifice.
The rhyming quotation, ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’, is part of the old wisdom that has accrued around the ritual of the lottery. In the story, it has the ring of a traditional saying or proverb which has been handed down the generations. (Many proverbs rhyme to make them easier to remember.)
Here, the line quoted by Old Man Warner means, essentially, ‘if a village holds the lottery in June, the corn will soon grow abundantly and there will be a good harvest for that year.’
‘There’s always been a lottery’.
This is another line spoken by Old Man Warner in response to the idea of a village to the north abandoning the annual ritual. For him, the fact that a lottery has always been held and crops are generally good leads him to conclude that there must be a causative link between the two events; if the village dared to risk giving up the lottery, they could be jeopardising their lives by causing the crops to fail.
But Warner’s utterance, which Jackson’s third-person narrator tells us he says in a petulant or childishly irritable manner, also points to the dogged ‘thinking’ surrounding the lottery. It is not founded on empirical or rational fact or observation: instead it is a tradition, and, like many traditions, must be blindly clung to, simply because it’s always been there. It is akin to the baseball fan believing that if he stopped wearing his lucky socks to the game, his team would lose. Deep down, he must know there is no rational basis for such a belief, but the habit has been established and must be stuck to.
‘You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted.’
When Bill Hutchinson draws the unlucky slip of paper which reveals that his family has been chosen, his wife, Tessie, objects that the process isn’t ‘fair’ because her husband was rushed along and didn’t have time to consider which piece of paper he wanted to draw from the black box.
Of course, this would make no practical difference in a game of chance such as the lottery. Hutchinson’s decision was not based on anything other than pure luck, and if he had (similarly by complete chance) chosen one of the blank slips of paper, Tessie would no doubt believe he had had adequate time to make the ‘right’ choice.
So this quotation from Tessie is significant for two reasons. First, it reveals the panic that is creeping into her heart as she realises that the hapless victim of the lottery will be one of the five members of her family (indeed, the victim will subsequently be revealed to be Tessie herself).
Second, though, and just as importantly, it reinforces the kind of magical thinking that governs the lives of the villagers. Tessie believes there is more in the lottery than a simple random drawing of lots, even though the lottery is purely a matter of chance.
‘All of us took the same chance.’
This fact – that the lottery is based solely on chance rather than anything else – is reinforced by the quotation that follows Tessie’s objection. Mrs Graves points out to Tessie that all of them had the same ‘chance’ at picking a slip, with ‘chance’ here carrying a double meaning: both ‘opportunity’ (to pick the slip they wanted) and ‘random luck.’
‘Make them take their chance!’
No quotation in Shirley Jackson’s story perhaps better embodies the dark aspects of human nature which the lottery brings out in the villagers than this one, spoken by Tessie Hutchinson after Mr Summers asks if any other households are contained within the Hutchinson family.
Tessie argues that her daughter, Eva, who is married to Don, should also be forced to draw a slip – even though, as Mr Summers points out, a daughter who is married draws with her husband’s household, rather than her parents’. Tessie must know this (as Summers himself observes), but her interjection is an act of desperation which is purely designed to increase the pool of participants in the household lottery, and thus reduce the probability of her being the one who draws the fateful slip herself.
This quotation is one of the most meaningful in the whole story. Previously, Tessie’s outburst – that her husband was rushed into choosing the unlucky slip – might have been interpreted as an attempt to save her own family from the grisly fate at the end of the story.
But in attempting to involve her daughter, Eva, in the household draw, she reveals herself to be motivated by self-preservation alone, and prepared to risk her married daughter’s life in order to save her own. The message is clear: fear can make someone do abominable things, even turning on their own family to try to save their own skin.
‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right’.
Also spoken by Tessie Hutchinson, this quotation is the last line of dialogue in ‘The Lottery’. This is the fifth time Tessie has said the words ‘it isn’t fair’ or ‘it wasn’t fair’ about the process of selecting the village sacrifice or scapegoat. In having these form almost the very last words of the story, Jackson invites us, the readers of the story, to reflect on the inherent unfairness of the system.
But what is the nature of that unfairness? Would Tessie consider the stoning unfair if it was one of her fellow villagers (or even – as we saw in the quotation discussed above – a member of her own family) who was suffering the same fate? Or would she pick up a stone and join in?
This phrase recurs throughout the story, then, because we as readers interpret the unfairness differently from Tessie, who simply thinks the fact that such a practice being carried out on her is unfair: not the practice itself. To us, from our detached perspective, we can see how unfair the idea of selecting an innocent person to act as blood sacrifice (regardless of whether the sacrifice actually ‘worked’ to influence the crops) really is, regardless of who the victim is.