On June 26, 1948, The New Yorker published Shirley Jackson’s polemic short, The Lottery. In contrast to the magazine’s fascinating glimpse into the harmonious society of New York City, the feedback to Jackson’s laborious work gave birth to an intense backlash, disgust, and deep-hearted confusion, unlike anything the highflying magazine had ever experienced before. The fictional story highlighted a community mirroring life in the heartland that partook in an annual lottery where each of them drew from a black wooden box. The winner, or albeit the sacrificial lamb was a mere homemaker, named Tessie Hutchinson. To the reader’s disgust, the townsfolk, from the young to the old, stone her to death in the public square. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.” In the formulae of literature, The Lottery remains one of the most controversial, yet groundbreaking achievements in storytelling largely because of Jackson’s unsatisfying ending. However from a writer’s perspective, the story is pure evil goodness.
Without warning, the story sucker punches the reader unapologetically, like a false preacher who tears out innocent hearts of his loyal congregation. Subscribers wrote letters of antipathy to the magazine declaring their public outrage and threatening to yank their subscriptions. The New Yorker published each of the letters, allowing readers to rebuke freely Jackson, including her mother. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Jackson biographer, Ruth Franklin recounts some of the letters that Jackson herself stored deftly in a scrapbook for over fifty years. “There were indeed some canceled subscriptions as well as a fair share of name calling–Jackson was said to be “perverted” and “gratuitously disagreeable,” with incredibly bad taste.”
Right up until the end, Jackson’s graphical gently manipulates the reader to feel he or she is amongst the townspeople for a friendly church raffle. The character Old Man Warner is a curmudgeon living in the past with plenty of salts in his bitter words. Before the reveal, he acts like the lottery is nothing more than a difference in politics. “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 back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while. Used to say, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” Death apparently, from Old Man Warner’s viewpoint is about habit. “Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery, seventy-seventh time.” Mr. Summers, the caretaker or more like the master of ceremonies, transports in his crumpled hands, a black box jam-packed with creased paper. 300 people line up like cattle, loom for Mr. Summers to announce the winner’s name. He hopes they will finish before noon dinner. “Let’s finish quickly,” he said.
Does Jackson’s barbaric cleansing mirror today’s society? In 1948, Hollywood became perplexed to Jackson’s meaning. Sterling Silliphant, a producer at Twentieth Century Fox, wrote, “All of us here have been grimly moved by Shirley Jackson’s story…Was it purely an imaginative flight, or do such tribunal rituals still exist and, if so, where?”
Unlike the young boys in Jackson’s story, in society today, stones act like fierce chipping’s chucked at people’s heads or like lethal bullets inside a smoking barrel, fired without conscience or concern. A father from Pakistan ordered his family to stone his pregnant daughter to death for refusing to marry her cousin and said he had no regrets. That horrifying story can be found here and is just a small example of religious fundamentalism practiced in the Middle East.
In Israel, lawmakers in the Knesset are propositioning stringent laws against Palestinians for stone throwing. (Goldman NBC News)
[The Stoning of St. Stephen.]
The interpretation of biblical scripture in law can prompt revulsion over benevolence. Christ’s disciple Stephen was stoned to death for his belief in Christ. In John 8:7, a female prostitute is about to be stoned for her moral crimes under the Old Testament law. Jesus says to the condemnatory townspeople, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Christ imparts that man is ham-fisted at judging anyone but himself. While this horrific form of law is practiced, in America, we engage in a different form of “stone throwing” and its not quite that different.
It is strange that politicians prefer to quote Leviticus and Deuteronomy rather than Jesus’ teachings. Leviticus is always negative, filled with fear, damnation, and harsh punishment. “God would not want this we must fight…” many will shout to the crowds manipulating “Christian values” under the guise of prejudice and hate.
[Ted Cruz above has a striking resemblance to another radical who
enjoyed destroying the rights of others. McCarthy nearly succeeded with his “stone throwing.”]
Every sin in Leviticus is answered with public stoning. To eat on the Sabbath, the punishment is death. To work on the Sabbath, is death. Ah yes, then there’s this. In Deuteronomy, A non-virgin who has sex with her husband shall be stoned to death. Isn’t that sin what transpired the Pakistani father to murder his daughter and grandchild?
Philosopher Immanuel Kant said that human understanding “is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality.”
To be moral is to do the right thing for the sake of wanting to be moral, and not wanting to be immoral. Jackson’s story reads like a religious parable advising humankind to be merciful and humane. Perhaps that was Jackson’s point of contention. Mercy is beyond the comprehension of society, but the misfits, poets, and melody makers of the world, live in perpetual hope.