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Then They Were Upon Her: Misogyny in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Helsinki chapter.

This week on Monday Book Club, we’re analysing The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you stop here since there are a lot of spoilers coming up so heads up, we have a SPOILER ALERT!

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), a sensational writer of American Gothic, was published in June 27, 1948 in The New Yorker. For a first time reader, the setting may seem an “ordinary” village, inhabited by “ordinary” people, so to speak. As the story goes on, however, the eerie atmosphere gradually strikes the reader page by page and in the end, we simply sit still as the lulling feeling of “ordinary” sinks into oblivion and there we are, wondering how we got here whilst admiring Jackson’s capability to turn everything we just envisioned into words. 

The story is about a small village (portrayed as one in New England) and its annual tradition, the lottery, based on superstition. There even exists an old saying in the narrative, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (Jackson, 13). In other words, no lottery, no food. In the end it is revealed that the winner actually loses and is stoned to death by the villagers, including friends and family. The fiction editor at that time, Harold Ross, did not fully understand the piece and asked if Jackson would like to elucidate the significance. She claimed, ”… it was just a story that I wrote.” However, interpretations of the short story suggest the contrary. The Lottery is an allegory of an interval after the second World War and the Great Depression, mirroring the state of patriarchal society and the restraining of women in the form of motifs and symbolism such as the black box, the box where the tickets are withdrawn, and the lottery itself. 

The story begins with a mise-en-scéne, a description of the primary setting (Lodge, 1). It does not take long until the first allusion to the power structure, the separation of men standing together and women in ”faded house dresses and sweaters” (Jackson, 4). Men talk about tractors and planting, women can be found gossiping. The distinction goes further as the women join the husbands: ”Soon the women, standing by their husbands, began to call to their children, and the children came reluctantly, having to be called four or five times” (Jackson, 4). When it comes to Bobby Martin, who does not obey, the head of the family, his father, ”spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly and took his place between his father and his oldest brother” (Jackson, 5).  This suggests that the place of a woman is by her husband – not as an individual but as a spin-off. The head of the family, the man, says the final word which everyone should obey. 

The black box enacts the patriarchal society and is painted as a simile – ”… no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” (Jackson 6) – even though the box grows shabbier each year along with the damage. Mr. Summers, the person in charge of the lottery and all civic activities arranged in the village, runs a coal business. His wife is mentioned being “a scold” (Jackson, 5) and yet again, a woman is presented in a bad light. Mr. Summers carries the black box and places it onto a three-legged stool which is, ”put in the centre of the square” (Jackson, 5). According to a story, ”the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, … the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here” (Jackson 6). A lot of the equipment and the tradition has been deserted, but not the Black Box. A jovial man with a scold of a wife talks about a new one, but the subject is forgotten. It is presented that the box was in use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest survivor of the previous seventy-six lotteries and still attending one more – a loud man expressing the entire governing gender, shouting to resist change. 

Not only is the lottery a tradition, but also a means of suppression of women. This can be seen not only in narration and characters or by means of symbolism, but also and especially throughout the whole story in the juxtaposition of the two genders, girls and boys, male and female. The latter was seen as weak at the time when the story was published. Expectations, limitations and punishments were placed upon women on a daily basis. In The Lottery, the head of the family, the man, is to draw the slip of paper from the box. The task is not entrusted to women unless a household lacks a man or a son of legal age. Mr. Dunbar has broken his leg so his wife, Mrs. Dunbar, a mother of two minor sons, receives the honour of drawing for their family. Mr. Summers confirms this situation to the crowd yet still asks who shall do the honour for their household. After hearing Mrs. Dunbar to be fulfilling the task, he says, ”Wife draws for her husband” (Jackson, 10) and again asks if they do not have a son to perform the action. When the Watson boy announces that he will draw for their family, Mr. Summers goes on, ”Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it” (Jackson, 10). When Mrs. Dunbar’s turn arrives, she walks ”steadily” to the box while being encouraged by two women, something that is not done to men under the same circumstances, suggesting the fragility of a woman.

When the story was published, a woman’s main aim was to get married and to give birth. Women were caretakers and men providers. A conducting women’s magazine at the time, Ladies Home Journal, fabricated an actual term in 1930: “homemaker – noun. Feminine: one who makes a home, who manages a household, cares for her children, and promotes happiness and well-being for her family” (Hall 232-242). This is a visible factor in Jackson’s short story. A female owns no authority. There is only one woman mentioned, the ”scolding wife” of Mr. Summers, who has not fulfilled her duty to have children. Each and every other woman apart from her has had children. During the lottery, women stand in the back and men and children in the front. Furthermore, the fragility of the female is exaggerated: Mrs. Delacroix has to crane her neck in order to see, and she and Hutchinson are described to ”laugh softly” (Jackson 8). When speaking of men in the story, their strength is emphasized: a father ”speaks up sharply” (Jackson, 5) and men ”hold the small folded papers in their large hands” (Jackson 12). Two adjectives are juxtaposed, small and large, to create a strong image of the man. 

There exist many stereotypes of heteronormative sexes in the story. Nevertheless, we can find an exception: Tessie Hutchinson, an antonym to the portrayal of women and the ideal female character of that time, a loud woman who dares to arrive late. She says to Mr. Summers, ”Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink now, would you, Joe?” (Jackson, 9). Tessie carries out the role of a woman, but dares to revolt against a man. Thus, she makes a perfect scapegoat and in the end, a victim. When she finds out that her husband has drawn the marked slip, she begins to argue – she is ready to give away her married daughter. A woman is the one to oppose. ”People ain’t the way they used to be,” (Jackson 17) says Old Man Warner, signifying that women are not how they used to be in listening to and obeying the man.

Another strong female character is Mrs. Delacroix, a turncoat. We are shown her friendship with Tessie Hutchinson as the latter arrives late to the square where everyone is waiting and getting started. Mrs. Delacroix calms her down and tells Tessie that drawing the slips has not started yet. Before Tessie leaves to find her husband, ”[s]he tapped Mrs. Delacroix on the arm as a farewell –” (Jackson 9). There is a sense of crafty irony here for this is the end of their friendship. It seems as if Tessie foresees what is to come: Mrs. Delacroix turns against Tessie, whose husband has drawn the slip with the black dot. Tessie begins to argue and demands the lottery to start over. Instead of defending Tessie, Mrs. Delacroix tells her to ”be a good sport” (Jackson 14). When the stoning begins, Mrs. Delacroix selects such a huge stone that she has to pick it up with both hands. When they announce the winner – who is actually the loser – it is the women who open their mouths at once, all willing to find out the result. Bill Hutchinson tells his wife to shut up after her arguing, and the woman quietens. He also forces the ticket, the one with the lethal black spot made with a heavy pencil, out of his wife’s hand and does not attempt to save her. 

The last scene is exceedingly interesting. The stoning begins, and Mrs. Delacroix picks the large stone and Mrs. Dunbar, having small stones in her hand, is gasping for breath. These two women, one very strong and the other portrayed as weak, both aim for the same goal – murder. The stones are also given to children, yet there isn’t a single male mentioned carrying stones. In the fifth paragraph, we notice that when the men begin to gather to the square, it is mentioned that they are standing ”away from the pile of stones in the corner” (Jackson 4). When women start picking the stones to carry out the ritual, men are present and provoking but no information about them throwing anything at Tessie Hutchinson is narrated. Is it to empower women? Do men govern and women do the dirty work? Then again, would it be as shocking if it were the men throwing the stones instead of the women and children? Intriguingly, we judge crimes of women more severely than those of men and we are more horrified about female criminals (Kennedy). In The Lottery, women are the ones to pick not merely the first stone but also the last, and a woman is also the scapegoat and the victim. 

Tessie Hutchinson is not happy with the result, just as she is not happy with the society which the lottery, a violent tradition, symbolises. She is the lone one to comprehend that the tradition is neither right nor fair, while the women collectively target their anger by stoning. They are trapped in a shabby box led by men. The splinters and the faded colour fail to imply the need for change. They are upon Tessie Hutchinson as the society is upon women, and as it was when Shirley Jackson wrote this famous piece.

Works cited:

Hall, Martha, Orzada, Belinda, and Lopez-Gydosh, Dilia. “The position of women after Great Depression and WW2”. The Journal of American Culture, pp. 232-242. Vol.38, no. 3, Sep 2015, https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.helsinki.fi/doi/full/10.1111/jacc.12357. Accessed 3 Oct 2021. 

Jackson, Shirley. Come Along with Me: Classic Short Stories and an Unfinished Novel. 1968. Penguin. Ebook. 2013.

Kennedy, Helena. “The Myth of the She-Devil: Why we judge female criminals more harshly.” The Guardian. Accessed 3 Oct 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/oct/02/the-myth-of-the-she-devil-why-we-judge-female-criminals-more-harshly

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. Vintage Digital. [VitalSource].

Markoff, John. “Margins, Centers, and Democracy: The Paradigmatic History of Women’s Suffrage,” Journal of Women in Culture and Society, pp. 85-116, vol. 29, no. 1, 2003. Accessed 3. Oct 2021. https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.libproxy.helsinki.fi/doi/citedby/10.1086/375678

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Helsinki '23

English major and an aspiring activist who mostly chills with her dogs or reads books.