Conformity to social evil in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

If you’ve taken English in a North American high school in the last 50 years, there’s a good chance you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” In case you haven’t, here’s your official spoiler alert: go read it first. It can be found online and is worth the few minutes it takes to read.

With that warning and as a refresher, the story takes place on a summer morning in a village in rural America. The villagers have gathered for an annual lottery of some sort, believed to ensure a plentiful harvest. Many of the original practices associated with the lottery have been lost over time. In fact, other villages are discontinuing the tradition altogether. Nevertheless, the oldest man in the community quickly silences all such talk. The sense of foreboding builds to a shock ending: the unfortunate “winner” of the lottery is publicly stoned to death by her fellow villagers – including her own little boy – in an act of ritual human sacrifice.

Shirley Jackson’s macabre tale of conformity to public evil was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1948. Widely anthologized, the story quickly came to be regarded as an American classic, required reading for generations of high school and college students.

Shifting reactions to “The Lottery” in the classroom

Kay Haugaard, a college professor in Southern California, wrote an essay in the late 1990s about her experiences teaching “The Lottery” to creative writing classes over the years. The essay was reprinted in a book called Unriddling Our Times: Reflections on the Gathering Cultural Crisis, edited by Os Guinness.

In her article, Haugaard discusses how her students’ reactions to “The Lottery” have shifted over time, reflecting the attitudes and values of their particular era. She notes the moral outrage, the heated discussions, even the nervous laughter of earlier generations of students.

By contrast – and in eerie parallel to the story itself – Haugaard describes the blasé response of her most recent class at the time of writing. Gone was any sense of shock, discomfort or moral indignation. Instead, the class speculated with cool detachment about why the story was set in contemporary America. They blithely asserted that if a ritual such as the lottery were part of a culture’s traditional beliefs, and if it “worked for them,” then it was not to be judged. One student appealed to vague “research” claiming that occasional bloodletting might indeed be good for a community.

With chilling dejection, Haugaard concludes, “No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.”

Relativism and the banality of evil

Our beliefs powerfully influence what we value and how we live. For quite some time, our culture has been telling us that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes, and that the sole universal moral precept is “thou shalt not judge.” Tolerance has been redefined: once it meant respecting those with whom we disagree; now it urges us to accept all ideas as equally valid. Is it any wonder Haugaard’s class responded to “The Lottery” the way it did?

It’s been nearly two decades since Haugaard wrote her essay, and our cultural trend toward moral relativism has only taken deeper root during that time. As Christians, let’s ask God for the courage of our Biblical convictions. Let’s determine by God’s grace to hate what He hates and love what He loves – passionately. Our convictions may appear unfashionable and be subject to stoning in the arena of public opinion. But thankfully, it’s only God’s opinion of us that matters in the end.

Sources and further reading

Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” and Kay Haugaard, “The Lottery Revisited,” Unriddling Our Times: Reflections on the Gathering Cultural Crisis, ed. Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), pp. 123-141.

Ruth Franklin, “‘The Lottery’ Letters,” The New Yorker, June 25, 2013.

Roger Berkowitz, “The Banality of Evil and Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’,” The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, June 28, 2014.

Erin McCarthy, “11 Facts About Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’,” Mental Floss, June 26, 2014.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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