A lottery is something that many people would be very excited to win. Most people think of a huge cash reward for winning a lottery. The thought of millions of dollars being awarded just because they picked your name is very exciting. In most cases, the possibility of winning one of these great lotteries is very slim; you would have a better chance of being hit by lightning. Shirley Jackson writes about a lottery that took place in a small farming community consisting of a meager 300 people. The probability of winning this lottery is good; you would have a one in three hundred chance of winning. The lottery is there to insure the season’s crops. If you were ‘lucky’; enough to be chosen, you would be sacrificed to the gods. This sacrifice would involve the townspeople directing you towards the middle of a circle and proceeding to throw rocks at you until death.
Everybody seems happy with the results of this yearly tradition until they are chosen for the stoning. Before the lottery, people are joking and gathering like it was a party. Once the ‘lucky’; participant has been chosen their cries of compromise are let out and this has no effect on the crowd at hand. Being one of the stoners, you are unwilling to recognize the screams of pain and the sights of blood. This sacrifice ensures the town’s economic success and their ability to feed the families. Crops are the lives of these families and if they fail there may not be enough food to feed this small town.
Killing one person a year to theoretically save the lives of three hundred people does not seem that bad. Sure the town’s people may follow this cruel tradition blindly, but how are they to know if the sacrifice is actually saving their crops or not? They keep on with their traditions because one bad year could wipe out the whole town. This town is run on economic success and a tradition that is not to be broken. The ability to follow cruel traditions without any remorse for the damage that has been done has a type of cult mentality. The economic well-being for this town is important, but is it important enough to follow a 100 year old tradition which, logically, does not help the crop condition one bit? Nobody has the answers to everything, but if tradition works, it keeps people from looking outside of their tradition for possible alternative solutions. The actions of many people in our world are due to a cult mentality, but they have excuses like economic success to defend their behaviors. People tend to believe many things without questioning the ramifications of their actions. The ability to disguise their conduct by excusing it with personal reasoning is still a result of cult mentality.
The crops that are produced govern the economic success of this town. This short story is reasoned with pure economics. First of all, the townspeople are sacrificing someone to ensure the growth of their crops each year. This is the main reason for the construction of the lottery. Over time, people have lost the true meaning of the lottery: it has changed from an actual sacrifice to promote good crop production, to just one day each year that the town gets to participate in a gruesome tradition.
Children line their pockets with rocks, one child ‘eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys’;(Gwynn 163). Some of the other boys were ‘selecting the smoothest and roundest stones’; for the best aim’;(163). The children and most of their parents have lost the true meaning of the lottery. This is similar to Christmas. It started out as a celebration of the miracle of Christ’s birth, but over time Christmas has become more commercialized and the true meaning is lost. The only person that seems to know the true meaning of the lottery is Old Man Warner; he is the oldest man in town. He claims that this is his ‘(s)eventy-seventh year’; that he had been in the lottery (168). Old Man Warner is the stereotypical grumpy old man; he is unwilling to change. Mr. Adam tells Warner that ‘the north village (is) . . . talking of giving up the lottery’;(167). He replies by saying:
‘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, cone 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. (167)
Old Man Warner is unwilling to let go of the lottery, it has been set in his head and no one will ever be able to change him. He thinks that by abolishing the lottery they will be taking a step back in civilization, but in reality the only steps they can make are forward. The thoughts that he impresses upon the town allow such a tragedy to keep going on. A town must be willing and able to change to ensure it’s economic success. While reading the Saturday morning comics, I found a cartoon that closely relates to Mr. Adams comment of giving up the lottery:
This cartoon shows BC trying to conform to the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. The bird is aware of it place in history and is willing to accept its death proudly. BC realizes that he is unable to kill such a noble fowl, so he decides to give up on it and try something else. The ability to change allows these people to become more efficient and productive. They would have access to more technological fertilizers and more advanced machinery, both of which would help to ensure a prosperous crop.
Secondly, it is ironic that the townspeople are using stones to kill the selected person. Stones are removed from the fields and this promotes growth. It is hard to grow crops in a rocky field because the plant roots are unable to branch out. Economically it is smart to remove the rocks from the fields and make other uses of them. A fence constructed by rocks will increase the individuals land value due to the definite property lines. Economically speaking, ‘property rights are really the rules of our economic game. When property rights are well defined, owners of property have an incentive to use that property efficiently’; (Miller 99). The fences are effective in keeping livestock from running off and it also discourages people from trespassing on your land.
Using the rocks to murder someone is efficient. First of all, there are almost no materials that have to be gathered for the event. If you were going to shoot the person you would have to get a gun and some bullets. A hanging would involve some kind of platform, or tree, and a considerable amount of rope. Probably the second most effective way of slaying a member of a community is an old fashioned stabbing; all you would need is a knife or a similar sharp object. The only problem with stabbing someone is the guilt: it would have to be executed by no more than two people and both of them would most likely have some guilt of killing this person. With a community of 300 people, the guilt is displaced between them (which almost everybody’s conscious is free). Everybody is throwing stones at the victim, but no one is sure who actually threw the life-ending blow. This way everybody feels that they helped promote the seasons crop; however, they do not feel like they have killed a functioning member of their society.
Rocks play even a bigger commercial roll in this small town. Mr. Summers runs the local coal factory and is in charge of the lottery. It is ironic that the person that controls the lottery pulls rocks of coal out of the ground for a living, while at the same time encourages people to gather rocks for killing. There is a close correlation between the coal-company and the lottery. From an economic standpoint, coal is an excellent ‘example of perfect competition’; (510). Miller’s definition of perfect competition is ‘(a) market structure in which the decisions of individual buyers and sellers have no effect on market price’;(G-11). In this small town the stoners represent the buyers and sellers and the victim represents the decision. If one person kills another person it will have no effect towards their yearly sacrifice. But if the group decides to kill a person, it will make a difference in their offerings to the gods. This means that everyone must agree on the decision to stone the person each year.
Since Mr. Summers runs the coal-company and the lottery, he must have some influence on the community. Jackson writes ‘(t)he lottery was conducted-as were the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program-by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities’;(Gwynn 164). This makes the lottery seem like another fun civic activity. Who could think that the lottery could be a bad thing if the context attached to it is ‘fun?’; Mr. Summers has a way of controlling the community by subjecting them to some type of propaganda that encourages them to kill each year. He will receive economic compensation for his duties as the leader. If people have a good crop that summer, they will have more money to spend throughout the winter. Therefore, the community will be more willing to increase their coal usage allowing them to heat their homes more efficiently; as opposed to them conserving their money and not investing as much into the coal.
The coal industry must be the top industry in the town. Everything involving the coal is put above the farms and farming community. The whole town inadvertently works for the coal-factory; by being involved in the lottery they are assisting coal production. Everything with the lottery has something to do with the coal-company, from the black box to the black marks that are made on the paper. One of definitions in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary of ‘black’; is ‘marked by the occurrence of disaster’;(198). Bill Hutchinson discovers the paper with the ‘black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal-company office’; in his wife Tessie’s hand. She has ‘won’; the lottery and that black mark will now put her to death (Gwynn 170).
Mr. Summers has the qualities of a cult leader. Webster’s dictionary defines a cult as:
1. A formal religious veneration 2. A system of religious beliefs and rituals also its body of adherents; 3. A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also its body of adherents; 4. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator; 5. a) a great devotion to a person, idea, thing; esp: such devotion regarded as literary or intellectual fad, b) a usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure.(484)
He would fall under the fifth definition. The people in the town give great devotion to the lottery and he happens to be the one in charge of it. These unaware town members also praise him by association. They accept these cult-like activities because of their search ‘for meaning in life, looking for authentic values that they can call their own, and which they can use as a guide to give their life a direction’; (Dupuis, Eden, and Thomson 2). Living in this small isolated town they are unaware of ideas that may benefit their own community, and this makes them vulnerable to manipulative people. Mr. Summers shows his ability to finesse his social status by arriving to the lottery late. It is shown that ‘(p)eople who are considered important can keep others waiting’;(Wood 154). The townspeople have some obligation to him or they would not waste their day waiting for him. He has obviously weakened the people’s will ‘creating a dependency that gets harder to break the longer one is associated with the cult [ex. the lottery]’; (Dupuis, Eden, and Thomson 2). Mr. Summers prevents progressive thought, which inhibits the intellectual development of the community. By not allowing the people to think for themselves, he keeps them from disagreeing with the thoughts of the leader. This impedes economic growth by keeping new ideas from forming.
The Anchorage Daily News ran a story about the Hudson Bay Company; at 220 years old, they are the oldest company in North America. 1999 will be the first year that they decide to change their colors since 1779. To ensure their marketing success, they had to change. The designer for Hudson Bay Company said, ‘We’re not a museum, we’re a department store, so we had to update’;(qtd. in Nickerson A-12). If they were unable or unwilling to conform to the demand of the public, it would send their business into the ground. By not exposing the town to new ideas and allowing them to become part of the publics supply and demand, Summers prevents the people from withdrawing from the group. It also prohibits them from becoming the most efficient workers.
Adolph Hitler is the closest person I can relate to Mr. Summers. He has the ability to manipulate these vulnerable townspeople causing them to follow his lead. Hitler had the power to choose who was going to die and who was going to live. Summers has a similar ability: he controls the lottery and, therefore, kills a person each year. It would be hard to believe that Summers would put his own name into the lottery drawing because this would increase his chances at an untimely death. The lottery allows the townspeople to take out all their aggression on one scapegoat a year, whether that aggression was a bad crop, bad children, or bad times. Summers is a smart man. He gives the people of the town the ultimate power once a year and it keeps them loyal to the leader. Summers uses the lottery to ‘diffuse the average villager’s deep, inarticulate dissatisfaction with the social order in which he live by channelling it into anger directed at the victims of the social order’; (qtd. in Musslewhite 2). The people are frustrated with their own social position and they take it out on that one chosen person. Economically this helps; it is a socially acceptable stress buster. It is common knowledge that a relaxed, clear-headed human being is going to work more proficiently than a psychologically impaired one.
This small town is not full of easily impressionable animals. It is a town of citizens that work very hard and would do anything to make it easier. They see Mr. Summers not working in the field, but sitting behind a desk in a coal factory and this causes jealously and envy amongst the townspeople. If the people act the way that Summers wants them to act, they might have a chance at the easy life. What they don’t understand is that an evil manipulating dictator controls the whole town, disguised in a bunny suit. He comes across as a person that is there to help the community by putting on ‘the square dances, the teenage club, [and] the Halloween program’;; these are all noble contributions, but there is a second, more genocidal motive behind the one presented (Gwynn 164). His motive is first power and second money. People say that money is not everything but power is. Money does not keep people happy it allows them the opportunity to establish themselves in society as successful people. This evokes power: everything is based on economics, and money does make the world go round. Many times the richest people have the most power or at least they are heard the loudest. People tend to listen to the rich people without investigating the motives for their actions. In many cases, their actions are based on a more selfish level. They have the ability to manipulate the town’s decisions to favor their own interests. Communities need to be more skeptical of the ones in power because that power can run rampant and destroy the democratic way of government.