A week ago Sunday, I participated in an online book club. I had never actually engaged with this group before, though they had been around for a decade, and I first “joined” via Meetup.com over seven years ago. Each month, I wanted to read the selection, but I never would, and the monthly meetups involved a trip into Manhattan that repeatedly felt progressively more difficult as the dates approached.
The club hadn’t met since March, the pandemic obviously making an in-person meetup impossible. Having not “met” in nine months, and nervous about how well the conversation might flow via Zoom, the organizer decided to run a test using a short story rather than one of literature’s great novels. (When I first joined via Meetup, the group’s name was the Modern Library 100 Book Club.) He selected Shirley Jackson’s iconic and influential short story, “The Lottery.”
A quick read? No travel? Attendance while wearing my elephant slippers and sitting at my desk? The universe had removed all my excuses.
The organizer chose “The Lottery” weeks before a large contingent of insurrectionists who claim to value “law and order” decided that violently attacking the seat of our government provided the best way to “protect” democracy from an election result with which they disagreed. By the time roughly 20 of us gathered on Zoom, the uproar prompted over 70 years ago when Jackson’s 3700-odd words first appeared in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker seemed especially quaint.
And symbolically prescient.
(That New Yorker link includes the full text of the story as well as audio version by author A.M. Homes. I encourage anyone to go read it, certainly before continuing here.)
Like many (or even most?) people my age, I read “The Lottery” in high school, if not before. I never forgot its ending and always recognized its enormous influence on so many other works of literature, forms of storytelling, and general pop culture. Still, before rereading it on Jan. 9, I knew the story’s climax but recalled little of Jackson’s journey to that denouement
From the start, I was surprised at how completely Jackson foreshadows her twist conclusion. This passage comes from the story’s second paragraph:
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.
Since the book club discussion, I’ve written literally thousands of words that ventured down multiple tangents about “The Lottery” and its perfect distillation of Trumpists, their ingrained MAGA mentality, and the jaw-dropping, shocking, horrific events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Upon reflection, I’m surprised that I was shocked by the contemporary resonance of Jackson’s tale, a realization that continued to solidify and grow after our conversation.
Finding my focus proved difficult, though I now realize I was helped somewhat by the historian Heather Cox Richardson whose remarkable daily “Letters from an American” on Jan. 16 focused on the long history of right-wing authoritarianism in America and how easy it has been for some to tap into the collective feelings of resentment and stoke tribal action. Still, even with her much more descriptive and eloquent context in mind, there absolutely must be a glitch in the Matrix when—regardless of metaphor or symbolism—“The Lottery” is a work of fiction, while the Trump presidency is not.
He mesmerized millions of Americans who hoped for his regime to continue, and regardless of what percentage (large or small) were rabid enough to consciously answer his call-to-arms, the images I watched seemed more appropriate for Designated Survivor than CSPAN.
I always found “The First Follower Theory” clever and profound, but Jan. 6 was just the latest example of how terrifying it can also be. “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader,” Derek Sivers states during his short TED Talk. The first (and second, third, and fourth) followers make the crazy “safe”; they enable others with similar ideas and biases to speak out because they no longer feel alone.
Most movements—good or bad, large or small—work in the same manner as a pyramid scheme, so when the origin—let alone the originator or first leader—becomes lost or forgotten, it is the most ignorant followers who become the most dangerous by being the most complacent. In “The Lottery,” Jackson devotes much description to reinforcing that nobody knows how or why the lottery began; how it has (or hasn’t?) evolved; or even what underlying meanings and symbolism stem from this ritual and the various objects involved.
Jackson makes clear the lottery’s normalization right from the beginning as well, essentially describing it as no different than any other town event. How could it be when Mr. Summers—the man who conducts the lottery—also MCs “the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program.” Mr. Summers is neither a political figure nor a member of law enforcement. He simply “had time and energy to devote to civic activities.”
Why would the townsfolk consider the lottery abnormal? Why would any of them exhibit much curiosity? The crowd expresses a nervous anxiety followed by a cathartic relief before celebrating their safety by killing the sacrifice.
Empathy is non-existent: Not for their neighbors; barely (if at all) for their families. Not once during the story does anyone—including the lottery’s eventual “winner,” Tessie Hutchinson—argue against or question the lottery’s existence. When one person mentions that another town has discussed abandoning the lottery, Old Man Warner—the oldest man in town, i.e., the town elder who has survived 77 lotteries—leads the dismissal and derision of the very possibility of doing so, blaming the crazy youth for whom nothing is ever good enough.
They do it because they’ve always done it.
They do it because they believe this annual sacrifice keeps the crops growing.
They do it because they believe not doing it would court destruction for their way of life.
Until the very end as stones fly towards her, even Tessie’s screams focus on how the selection process was unfair and rigged, not that the entire endeavor is wrong or barbaric. The rest of her family doesn’t even go that far: Her husband simply accepts it while their three younger children celebrate not pulling the black mark themselves. Whether her youngest son Davy understands what’s happening or not bears little relevance on the feeling elicited when reaching, “and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.”
Meanwhile, Jackson ensures we can’t forget Tessie’s own complicity as she places an enormous hurdle in the way of the reader’s ability to empathize with her too: She’s more concerned about herself than her children. In my reading, it is not a stretch to assume she would toss any of them, onto the pyre to save herself, including little Davy.
Before the family draws their individual lots, but after her husband Bill Hutchinson and Mr. Summers discuss that a married woman selects with her husband’s family, Tessie argues that her daughter Eva and son-in-law Don should have to pick too, which would only lead to lower odds that Tessie would select the black dot. Apparently, if Tessie had to stone Eva, that would be more fair.
There is never a moment when anyone from Mr. Summers on down expresses sorrow nor sympathy to Tessie, either. Not only is the relief among the crowd palpable, they enthusiastically participate in an activity for which even moral relativism offers no real defense. The closest to any expression of distaste Jackson offers arrives with a brief, almost tossed-off comment as Mr. Summers tries to move things along:
“All right, folks,” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”
How is it possible for a whole town to feel good and have fun committing murder? Belief and confirmation bias are powerful things. A mob mentality not so different from that in the story seemed to occur due to the precise moment in history the story arrived via The New Yorker, one when our current disease of American exceptionalism and entitlement grew exponentially in the wake of World War II.
And that disease is what ultimately led to Trump and what now must be termed “MAGA mentality,” which we should not describe as delusional but rather as an example of inexplicable blind faith. Never-Trumpers have regularly argued, “Country over party,” but that’s the wrong argument. Our political discourse often involves multiple views talking past each other and debating different subjects, and that’s true in this case as well. “RINO” accusations aside, the members of the Cult of Trump believe the only way to save their country is not through Republican or conservative ideology; to them, Republicans may not be as crazy as the “libtards” controlling the Democrats, but they’re just rats in “the swamp” too.