Random Thoughts: A gendered reading of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

I’ve been thinking about Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, which was the starting point for the October 2021 Six Degrees of Separation. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the character Tessie, and what she represents for me. I found a few essays online analysing the story in relation to public reaction, symbolism, the purpose of ritual, even Marxist theory. I didn’t find anything about gender roles that satisfied me, though, so I decided to marshall my random thoughts on the subject here.

The story was published in 1948 in The New Yorker, where you can still read it. At the time, it gained notoriety in a similar way to the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds – apparently it wasn’t initially clear to New Yorker readers whether Jackson’s piece was fact or fiction. Imagine reading it for the first time as a piece of reportage, and wondering where this village was, and why its residents were allowed to continue with such a barbaric ritual. That reported lack of recognition among the original New Yorker readers about whether the piece was fact or fiction made me think about click bait, confirmation bias and echo chambers, and the way we read something, believe it to be truth without digging deeper, and instantly become angry about it. It doesn’t surprise me that so many wrote to Jackson to vent their feelings. Had social media been a thing in 1948, she would undoubtedly have become the victim of a pile on of public vilification. She might even have been cancelled.

Other readers, including Jackson’s parents, were angry that Jackson hadn’t written something more cheerily edifying. In a lecture given in 1960, Jackson recalled her mother’s words.

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?”

Lecture text printed in Jackson, Shirley; Hyman, Stanley Edgar (1968). Come Along with Me; Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures (2nd ed.). New York: Viking Press.

The volume of letters in response to the piece prompted Jackson to try to explain what the story was about. For her, it was about the inhumanity we show each other in our daily lives.

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.

Shirley Jackson writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, 22 July 1948

What struck me, as a reader coming fresh to the story in 2021, was the gender divide in the village in Jackson’s story. This is very much of its time, a time when boys and girls played differently to each other, and when men were the de facto head of a family and women their helpmeets. The way those roles manifest in the story is entirely to be expected. But 1948 was also a time when women were having the freedoms they experienced during the Second World War rolled back, as men returned from combat, or from reserved occupations in support of the war, and retook their traditional positions in society. Jackson, born in 1916, would have witnessed women’s position in society temporarily changing, even if, as a woman in the workplace already, writing for the New Yorker during the war, she would not have experienced that change directly herself. Thinking about the story, I wondered whether Jackson, wittingly or otherwise, had half an eye on what would emerge, 15 or so years later, as second wave feminism. Jackson died in 1965, not far into the second wave. The little I know about her is what is written in her Wikipedia entry, which records that she was both head of the family, in the sense of being the main breadwinner, and retained responsibility for raising the children. A woman who did it all, as so many second wave feminists were bound by prevailing social convention to do.

I appreciated the feeling in the story that people in nearby villages had started the process of change, turning their backs on their own barbaric rituals and superstitions. Although Tessie doesn’t specifically want change in the same way, and only wants to not be the lottery ‘winner’ in response to her selection, the more I think about her, the more I think about the second wave feminists, some of whom would have been a similar age to Tessie, and the resistance there still is to social change. In the UK, with our current government, there’s a definite sense of people in power wanting to roll back the civil liberties we’ve won, in all areas. Because, of course, with broader social freedoms, those accustomed to power feel less free and want to curtail everyone else’s liberties. And Tessie’s cry of “It’s not fair” spoke to me, too. Sometimes, for change to happen, that cry of “It’s not fair”, even if grounded in personal selfishness, is necessary for injustice and inequality to start to be addressed.

Jackson uses the gender differences to good effect in the story. Here is a familiar world, a rural farming community, in which the boys gather stones, perhaps to build something together, practising their manly construction skills, while the girls echo their mothers in the gathering community, standing in clusters together to chat passively and observe the menfolk. The women are there to support their husbands. Tessie is notable because of her tardiness, arriving later than the others, delayed by forgetfulness and getting the chores done. Her difference could be read as a catalyst for her selection and the root of her sense of injustice. For me, if not for Tessie, who simply doesn’t want to be the one made the scapegoat to secure the harvest, the injustice also lies in the fact that the women are entirely passive in the lottery process. Even a boy, in a family without an adult male head, is preferable to a woman in taking the responsibility for drawing the family’s lots. The women are the embodiment of that old fashioned term chattels. They can’t take an active part in the process, but they can certainly bear the brunt of the penalty, offered up by their male owners. And the women who escape for that year can also, with a bland inevitability, take their part in meting out the penalty.

It isn’t just the nature of the lottery that instilled horror in me. It’s the lack of sisterhood. It’s the way everyone accepts the hierarchy, and the women, so friendly and supportive of each other as they wait in the crowd for due process to be completed, abandon that temporary solidarity for a longer lasting one, focused on the patriarchal structures the village has selected. It’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia (for example), it’s the complicity in a narrow liberty that isn’t quite equality because that’s an easier life.

10 thoughts on “Random Thoughts: A gendered reading of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

  1. This is a really interesting reading! I never thought about the gender aspect of it before, but you’re right, it’s horrific how quickly the women turn on one of their own. Something we still see today with so many apparently different ways of defining feminism/womanhood.

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    1. Thank you! Human nature is a bizarre thing. Equality intersects – we are each more free in our lived identity when those whose identities differ from ours are also free. Whenever I see one group of people behaving as though their freedom or sense of security is under threat from another group, I see a power struggle.

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  2. Such a thoughtful and thought provoking piece. Like Dipika, I hadn’t particularly noticed the gender divide, and now I wonder how I could have failed to observe it, or reflect upo the way we can quickly turn our feelings when we are not in imminent danger of being the outcast.

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    1. Thank you, Margaret. It’s something that has been rolling around in my head all week. Reading what other people have written about the story, and Jackson’s words about how opinions about it changed in her lifetime, have made me think it’s a clever story on a number of levels. I’m definitely going to seek out more of Jackson’s work.

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  3. I read that way back in the 1960s in an anthology for high school or college students, while growing up in Mexico – and completely missed that gender divide, because, probably, I was living it, and was used to it.

    My recollection was that the sacrificial victim could be either male or female, just that the ‘men’ supplied the stones – to everyone – in the first place. That every villager above a certain age could be the one selected by the lottery.

    When you think what it would cost the family to lose a member – and all the services that member provided – it seemed to me that only knowing that it would keep the whole village safe for another year would be worth the price, and that somehow this village had found that out.

    I’ll have to go re-read one of these days to see what I missed!

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Alicia. I really think that it’s a tale that can be interpreted according to the time the reader is living in, the issues they are engaged with, the things that they believe in, as well as being a chilling horror story.

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  4. Really interesting Jan. I would add a couple more things. One is that there’s some difference between the women, with one picking a big stone that she can barely carry and another woman who picks up pebbles as I recollect and holds back a bit. This reflects the differences in humanity – those who join in with gusto (probably received it’s not them) and those with some more empathy and, perhaps, see “there but for the grace of God” etc etc!

    Also, it’s interesting that Tessie says at the end, “It’s not fair. It’s not right”. What’s not right in her mind? Just the unfairness of the process as she sees it now she’s won. But also, what’s might not be right in the minds of others?

    Anyhow, I love that you burrowed into this. I also loved your reference at the beginning to the idea that some people believed it to be true (and extrapolating to how we read now?) Weren’t these stories in the New York Times clearly flagged as short stories NOT as columns or reports? For me, one of the first things to consider when you read is “what is the form” and then, what are the assumptions and expectations of the form?

    And, finally, an American who now lives in Australia and who was a young person in America at the time, said that we all knew is was about McCarthyism. I’ve seen some references to this but not a lot. Jackson didn’t say so in the San Francisco piece, but then again, given the times, she probably wouldn’t?

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    1. From the essays I found, Sue, it seems that the New Yorker didn’t clearly distinguish between articles and fiction at the time. I no longer have a subscription, so can’t check the magazine’s own digital archive, but I found an image online that shows the first page of the story with just the title at the top, no author name, no categorisation. So maybe some readers weren’t versed in how to differentiate between different types of writing and took it to be reportage.

      Alicia has commented that, when she first read the story in high school in the 60s, she believed it to be a true story, not fiction.

      Your American friend’s recollection of it being recognised at the time as being about McCarthyism is more evidence for me that Jackson wrote something that can be interpreted multiple ways, depending on what is in your mind when you read it. It’s not something I picked up on when I first read the story, I’d forgotten how early McCarthyism started, but I agree with your friend, and I agree with you – Jackson was writing about the “pointless violence and general inhumanity” of McCarthyism and wouldn’t have been able to say outright that she was doing so. Thinking about that aspect of it, Tessie’s “It’s not fair. It’s not right.” strikes me as a blatant comment on McCarthyism.

      I think I saw a reference somewhere to the letters Jackson received having been published. It would be interesting to read what people wrote to her, how many picked up on her message being directly about the Red Scare. From the tenor of her official response, I got the impression that the letters mostly asked why she would write something so horrible about American life, which is, of course, an anti-American thing to do, which is itself at the heart of McCarthyism.

      I glanced across a number of opinion pieces while looking for something to confirm the things that stood out for me, and the multiple readings I found covered connections to the Salem witch trials, the allegorical meanings of individual names, the purpose of ritual and superstition. My feminist reading of it in 2021 is but one of many across the life of the story. I wonder what future readers will make of it.

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