The Lottery by Shirley JacksonScience Imitating Art
Jackson’s story was published in 1948. At the time, and since, it has been praised as insightful and criticised as obscure. But almost 20 years later, the French philosopher, Rene Girard, produced a theory which has a remarkable congruence with its theme and, I think, provides the best explanation of what Jackson was getting at in The Lottery.
Girard argued that our individual desires are never the product of some inner longing but always rather of the imitation of others. We want what other people want. This he called ‘mimetic desire’ and Girard went on to explore the implications of this insight for the next half century.
Mimetic desire, according to Girard, has a predictable trajectory that is familiar to advertising executives around the world. One person wants what another has, just because the other has it. This attracts the desire of others in a sort of exponential wave of wanting.
But widespread wanting of anything means, first, a shortage of that commodity, and consequently the mutual antagonism of all those who share the same desire. Girard’s contention is that this incipient hostility threatens to create a sort of Hobbesian world, a non-society, in which no cooperative or coordinated action, including effective government, can be established.
Human beings, Girard believed, deal with this situation unconsciously and instinctively by the mechanism of ‘scape-goating’, through which a group identifies one of its own members as the cause of its mimetic tension. This individual is both sacred and an object of communal hatred. The elimination of this individual is therefore not just necessary for the welfare of the community, but also forms the basis of religious practice in which the role of the scape-goat is transformed into a noble duty.
Girard goes even further in his later work to claim that the ritual establishment of the scape-goat is the most primitive form of representation, and consequently of language, that human beings have demonstrated. In a sense the essential foundation for human power in the world is religious violence which victimizes random members or groups in modern society.
Whether or not one agrees with Girard’s anthropology, and there is a substantial body of evidence to recommend it, his literary usefulness is demonstrated by the application of his theory to The Lottery. The theory explains, among other things the liturgical character of the story; its origins in a distant past; its particular relevance to a relatively isolated agricultural community; and its connection to a paternalistic hierarchy whose continued existence depends on the ritual.
As far as I am aware, Girard did not read The Lottery; but since he was in America at the time he might have done. In any case, it is certainly remarkable that an author of fiction like Jackson could have written such a tight short story which captures so much of subsequent academic work. Thus demonstrating, if demonstration were needed, the tremendous importance of fiction to cultural life.
For an introduction to Girard’s work see: https:///review/show...
11 Facts About Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
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When Shirley Jackson's chilling story "The Lottery" was first published in in The New Yorker , it generated more letters than any work of fiction the magazine had ever published. Readers were furious, disgusted, occasionally curious, and almost uniformly bewildered. The public outcry over the story can be attributed, in part, to The New Yorker 's practice at the time of publishing works without identifying them as fact or fiction. Readers were also presumably still reeling from the horrors of World War II. Yet, though times have changed and we all now know the story is fiction, "The Lottery" has maintained its grip on readers decade after decade.
By Shirley Jackson. The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys, and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.
Taking Tradition to Task
Look for a summary or analysis of this Story. The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys, and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.
The story describes a fictional small town in contemporary America which observes an annual rite known as "the lottery". The purpose of the lottery is to choose a human sacrificial victim to be stoned to death to ensure the community's continued well being. Readers' initial negative response surprised both Jackson and The New Yorker : subscriptions were cancelled and much hate mail received throughout the summer of its first publication. The story has been dramatized several times and subjected to much sociological and literary analysis. Details of contemporary small-town American life are embroidered upon a description of an annual rite known as "the lottery".