This is a short note from my Roam Research second brain. Here’s a free guide where I introduce you to Roam & Building A Second Brain.
Metadata of Note
Type: 🌱 Seedling [Nomenclature present here.]
Tags: #Mimetic Theory #stories #psychology #
Date: June 2nd, 2022
I came across “The Lottery” in 🌰 Wanting by Luke Burgis. He shared the story presented in The Lottery as an example of The Scapegoat Mechanism. Intrigued, I went to read the full plot of the short story along with the reception.
The plot of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Details of contemporary small-town American life are embroidered upon a description of an annual ritual known as “the lottery.” In a small village of about 300 residents, the locals are in an excited yet nervous mood on June 27. Children pile up stones as the adult townsfolk assemble for their annual event, which in the local tradition is apparently practiced to ensure a good harvest (Old Man Warner quotes an old proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”). However, some other villages have already discontinued the lottery, and rumors are spreading that a village farther north is considering doing likewise.
The lottery preparations start the night before, with coal merchant Mr. Summers and postmaster Mr. Graves drawing up a list of all the extended families in town and preparing a set of paper slips, one per family. All are blank except one, later revealed to be marked with a black dot. The slips are folded and placed in a black wooden box, which in turn is stored in a safe at Mr. Summers’ office until the lottery is scheduled to begin.
On the morning of the lottery, the townspeople gather shortly before 10 a.m. in order to have everything done in time for lunch. First, the heads of the extended families each draw one slip from the box, but they wait to unfold them until all the slips have been drawn. Bill Hutchinson gets the marked slip, meaning that his family has been chosen. His wife, Tessie, protests that Mr. Summers rushed him through the drawing, but the other townspeople dismiss her complaint. Since the Hutchinson family consists of only one household, a second drawing to choose one household within the family is skipped.
For the final drawing, one slip is placed in the box for each member of the household: Bill, Tessie, and each of their three children. Each of the five draws a slip, and Tessie gets the marked one. The townspeople pick up the gathered stones and begin throwing them at her as she screams about the injustice of the lottery.
Reception of “The Lottery”
What was intriguing was to see the reception of this story back in 1948. (side note: this story was published just a few years after World War II). The Wikipedia page says,
“Readers’ initial negative response surprised both Jackson and The New Yorker; subscriptions were canceled, and much hate mail was received throughout the summer of its first publication, while the Union of South Africa banned the story.”
“The New Yorker received a “torrent of letters” inquiring about the story, “the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction””
This is what Shirley Jackson was quoted as writing:
“of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker“, she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”
The story itself is a great example of The Scapegoat Mechanism coined by Rene Girard. Except, instead of the scapegoat chosen during a time of crisis/chaos, it has become a “ritual” in this town described in the story.
The reception Jackson received for her story further exemplifies the point she was trying to make with the story itself: how violence can sometimes be senseless and without reason. By sending her hate mail for a fictional story she had written trying to make the reader think with reason more, not only is the moral of the story lost, but the readers of the story are doing to Jackson what the townspeople do to the victim in the story.
By talking about the scapegoat mechanism, Jackson herself became one, unwittingly.
Sadly, we make scapegoats out of people every day. Only the “sacrifices” have changed. Instead of stoning people, now we’re turned to sending hate mail and cyber-bullying.
Connection to “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas”
There seems to be a strong connection between “The Lottery” and “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” written by Ursula Le Guin.
But, unlike the reception that Jackson received, Ursula’s story received a positive response, and her book was used by teachers in classrooms to debate the question of #morality. Is it because one was written in 1948 and the other in 1973? Or, because one showed the true nature we have in all of us to “scapegoat” people and the other showed that a few of us are able to rise above this nature to “scapegoat” people?
I guess we’ll never know.