That Could Never Happen: A Look at The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson first appeared in The New Yorker in June 1948, people averted their eyes. Many canceled their The Lotterysubscription to the magazine. Jackson received hate mail. People wrote to ask if the short story were fiction—and if not, where did these outlandish rituals take place, anyway?

The New Yorker’s boilerplate response to questions about “The Lottery” read: “Miss Jackson’s story can be interpreted in half a dozen ways. It’s just a fable…She has chosen a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.”

Dystopian fiction seeks to examine what people will accept as the status quo, and what it takes before individuals will rebel.

At the outset of “The Lottery”, the purpose of the annual lottery in the small farming community is unclear, but one assumes it’s a superstitious ritual, done to assure a good harvest. The children are seen piling up stones, and the elders carefully allot one slip of paper for each head of household in the community. Some grouse about the “fools” in other communities who are talking about giving up the lottery.

Tessie Hutchinson, a housewife, goes along with the status quo—until after her husband draws the slip of paper with the black mark. Then she begins to protest, saying it wasn’t fair—he didn’t have a chance to choose properly. Her reaction causes the reader realize that winning this lottery has dire consequence.

The entire Hutchinson family is made to draw slips of paper, and, though their mother continues to protest, the three children go along with the proceedings willingly. They proudly display their blank slips of paper. Their mother has drawn the black spot this time. And the townspeople react thusly:

“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box. Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”

Mrs. Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said, gasping for breath. “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”

The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

I read “The Lottery” in sixth-grade English class. The teacher also showed us the short film (made in 1969) and even though some thirty-five years have passed, when I watched it on YouTube prior to writing this post, the images were fresh and familiar, still seared on my brain.

How could something like that happen, even in a story? At the time, I felt certain there was no way—no way—that the adults in my world could ever let something like that happen.

I was too young to be cognizant of the atrocities of genocide or war. This simple community ritual, as depicted in “The Lottery”, paled by comparison to the horrors of the real world.

So why did people avert their eyes? Because the truth hurts. If everyone were jumping off a bridge, would you jump, too? Shirley Jackson’s story asserts that we would.

As every parent of teenagers knows, the degree of stupid recklessness that takes place is directly correlated to the number of teens involved. (I’m right—you know I am.)

“The Lottery” could have been a blueprint for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which the American Library Association reports was one of the most challenged books of 2013, mostly for religious reasons and because the book was unsuited to a particular age group.

Surely the horror and violence in The Hunger Games outstrips the horror in “The Lottery.” Collins herself acknowledged her dystopian stories were not for everyone, telling The Associated Press at the time that she had heard “people were concerned about the level of violence in the books. That’s not unreasonable. They are violent. It’s a war trilogy.”

The idea of teens being forced into killing one another on reality television seems outrageous. That could never happen. Right?

Both stories follow a common theme in dystopian fiction: human nature can be threatened by external forces until man becomes violent and inhuman.

That message should never be banned.speak the truth quote

If you enjoyed this post, I bet you’ll like my books, too! Check out Counteract: Book One of the Resistance Series, here.

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3 Comments
  1. Hi there- I’d like permission to reproduce this blog post for use in my Freshman English class. The kids are reading “The Lottery” and your article raises some interesting points for discussion. I would like to reformat it as a handout (rather than just print the web page) so I can add a journal assignment; I would forward you the PDF for approval. Of course, this would be properly cited at the end of the handout. Please let me know if this is acceptable and I look forward to hearing from you.

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