Hidden Barbarism in “The Lottery”
One of the major themes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is the barbarity of human nature. The story depicts a seemingly average American town, where the people willingly participate in an annual tradition of killing one of their own. The person is chosen randomly by a lottery, which gives the people enough humanity to continue on with the ritual. However, the people of the town are not happy about their duty, as they see it. “There’s always been a lottery,” they say, and they believe this means there always should be.
They encourage each other, not for the killing, but for finishing it so they can get on with their lives. They mostly believe in what they’re doing, if only because that’s just the way life is. In the same way, things we see as normal are barbaric or inhumane to other peoples or cultures. For instance, most Americans consume beef and pork several times a week, and yet people in other parts of the world might consider that barbaric. Similarly, we would be horrified if someone ate a cat or dog, but it happens in other cultures.
The people of the small town also carry out this cruelty with detached civility. “Let’s get this over with,” they say, as though they were talking about fixing a roof in the rain, rather than stoning a neighbor to death. It’s hard to imagine ourselves doing that to someone we know or even love. Impossible to think of. But things like this have happened in the world on many occasions. People who range from humble beginnings to royalty, and from ancient to modern times, have committed murder, and even genocide on extreme scales.
However, one might consider the lottery itself as a sort of mercy. If the population must be downsized, is it not more fair to do so by a random drawing? In general, people would rather be surprised with their own death, rather than dreading it, maybe for their whole lives. Perhaps the question is not of cruelty, but of ‘fairness. ‘ And of course, fairness is extremely objective, and creates so much controversy that no one can agree on anything.
One view, obviously, is that this is the most fair way of doing it; the other is that it simply shouldn’t be done at all. I agree with the latter. After all, “The Lottery” states that several other towns have abolished the act altogether. Why shouldn’t this one, too? It is undeniable, though, that human nature can be extremely barbaric. Humans have, and conceivably will again, stone people to death. When stoning is a common ritual in the world, people become desensitized to the cruelty, but that doesn’t change the reality that it is cruel.