Unwrapping a Familiar Tale

There are certain stories we constantly return to. Either because we simply like the story or we believe it provides great value or lessons for our life. One of those stories for me is Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Yesterday a friend on Facebook asked what are the best books for leadership and I suggested The Lottery despite it being a story about a failure and lack of leadership. The story’s main value comes in showing us how not to be.

The Lottery is partly what I refer to as a through a mirror darkly story. If you have not read The Lottery you should do so before reading much further as there will be spoilers ahead (although it is hard to call them spoilers for a 71 year old story). I call it a through a mirror darkly story not because of any particular growth of any character in the story from thinking like a child to thinking like a mature adult, but because it begins with the thoughts of children.

Shirley Jackson sets the scene by describing an idyllic town on a warm summer day with the children all recently out for the summer. Everyone is gathering in the town square, for what, the reader is left in ignorance, but it appears to be a good time. The boys are gathering stones and stacking them in piles, and at this point in the story that appears to be just the nature of children. The stones are given no real significance other than they are being children and gathering and stacking stones.

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”—eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.

The gathering of stones is presented merely as a childhood activity. Boys will be boys if you will (while not forgetting the dark undercurrent that phrase has taken on in our modern lexicon). Eventually all the town people gather and the stones fade from the memory of the reader. They aren’t mentioned during the middle part of the story and their presentation as a child’s game allows them to be forgotten by all but the subconscious mind.

It is here in the middle of the story we are presented with the greatest failing of the leadership of the town. Mr. Summers is the conductor of the lottery as he is the conductor of most town activities, because he is the one willing to do so and has a sharp personality and jovial nature.

The lottery was conducted—as were the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program—by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities. He was a round-faced, jovial man and he ran the coal business, and people were sorry for him, because he had no children and his wife was a scold. 

The leader of the town and conductor of the lottery isn’t the one that is the best fit for the job, the most intelligent, or a person that has earned it in anyway other than being the one with the energy to devote to such maters. With Mr. Summers is the black box that holds the slips of paper for the lottery, and it is here we start to see the dangers of relying too heavily on tradition. As the black box is brought through the villagers people shy away from it and when Mr. Summers asks for help there is hesitation. the arrival of the black box is the reader’s first hint that something sinister is in our midst.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year; by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

The black box used isn’t the original black box. It is a reconstruction. a lot like much of our tradition. Think of the gospels of the bible or the Iliad of Homer. Oral traditions that we have later written copies of. They are said to have parts of the original but how much we do not know, and yet traditions are treated as something grand an ancient. Think about how many politicians invoke the founding fathers as a way of winning arguments. It is a look to tradition for guidance and it is most often a blind look. The blind obedience to tradition is really why The Lottery is a great story about leadership.

When trying to learn to be a leader it is better to learn about principles and human nature than tactics. Tactics change over time and books on leadership and business development are often written by people that were successful ten or more years ago. A lot has changed in that time and more changes everyday. “That’s just the way it’s done/is,” will always be bad advice just as anyone that talks about old school methods and putting boots to pavement. Engaging in door to door sales or even the hanging of door flyers in this modern age is more likely to get you yelled at through someone’s doorbell than lead to a sale. Blindly following tradition or doing things that have worked in the past is advice best left ignored.

Unfortunately for the citizens of the unnamed town in Ms. Jackson’s story they haven’t learned to not blindly follow tradition. Even though other villages have. As the people are called to make sure they’re in attendance and final preparations are made for the drawing there is a conversation about the lottery itself.

“They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”

Old Man Warner snorted. “Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly. “Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody.”

“Some places have already quit lotteries,” Mrs. Adams said.

“Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.”

Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, comes to the defense of tradition. Pointing out all the key benefits of the lottery and the detriments of giving it up. Like…and…and the most excellent point of… Like most political arguments Old Man Warner offers nothing of substance. He points out that millennials are killing the lottery and that the younger generation is a pack of fools that just doesn’t understand. All well researched and reasoned facts. In his ramblings on the good old days there is found a possible hint to the reason for the lottery and it is the same reason used in later stories like The Hunger Games. The lottery is conducted each year for population control and to make certain everyone has enough to eat, and while it would take too long to talk about the feminist aspect of The Lottery the key to it is here. That social systems that once made perfect sense age out as technology advances and social structures change but that the myths that justified them persist and our social structures lag behind other societal changes.

Eventually the Hutchinson family draws the paper with the black dot, and Tessie Hutchinson loses the second drawing. Tessie Hutchinson who just a few minutes ago was joking about being late to the lottery with her friends and neighbors is stoned to death with her final words being, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.” It is a haunting end to a haunting story that does a masterful job of keeping the reader in the dark until the very end. It is also a story so filled with subtext and symbolism it can be read again and again and again. In more than a few ways I view this story as the key to understanding all human interaction.

Think of all that is present in this story. It begins with the innocence of children gathering stones. Then skillfully and crafty makes us forget and disregard the stones until they are pelted at Tessie Hutchinson. And, us, the reader, through a mirror darkly we view the tale until the clouds are lifted from our eyes. This is not a tale of an innocent village on a bright summer day. It is a tale of the malevolent evil that can come from relaying too heavily on tradition and not questioning our elders. It is also an explanation of the hot cold empathy gap. That in a heightened state of emotions humans are more likely to act irrationally with disregard to their goals and in a cold state of emotion will not understand or have empathy for the poor decisions they’ve made.

Then there is the slight hint at last year’s winner of the lottery. The Watson family. Who’s son is drawing for them because the father is mysteriously absent. The Lottery is a story to be read throughout one’s life. always revealing something new to them. Some new understanding of human nature and its relation to the current world. The Lottery is a story about the failures of traditions, the myths we let guide us and hold back our letting go of archaic social systems, and the malicious and deadly nature of humans when they allow themselves to be guided by these false idols.

One thought

  1. Wow! Yes! This is exactly what I see in the church. Too many people do not understand the history of how or why the Bible was created. Much less how translation works. I suppose not studying or thinking on things is so much easier. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to the oversensitive among us.

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