There was a town in Vermont where the lottery took place every year on the 27th of June. The children gathered first with boisterous play, then the men smiling quietly at one another and then the women in their house dresses greeting each other warmly. The boys at play gathered smooth stones, building piles while protecting their piles from other boys. Mr. Summers who runs the lottery came out with the black box and the names on strips of paper inside the box. The men, head of households draw first. The family who wins, then draws the names of each family member. The winner has a black mark on their strip of paper. Tessie Hutchinson, the mother of three wins this year. Mr. Summers said “let’s finish this quickly.” The stones are ready. Tessie was in the center of a cleared space saying “This isn’t fair” as a stone hit her on the side of the head. She was stoned to death by her neighbors and family.
“The best short story grabs you immediately. The short story is usually concerned with a single effect conveyed in only one or a few significant episodes or scenes.”
I read this story in school when I was 13 or 14. Some say it’s 8th grade reading. I was mortified. The story has stayed with me all my years. Recently, I have been thinking about it and surveyed many of my friends and family asking if they had read the short story. Most had not heard of the story and only a few had read it. The ones that did read it found it equally shocking. It moved me to engage with it, to consider it.
Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery” in June 1948. It was published in the New Yorker. The response to the story was palpable with people canceling their subscriptions to the magazine. Jackson's response was “the number of people who expected Mrs. Hutchinson to win a Bendix washing machine at the end would amaze you.” I mean, people were horrified. After all aren’t Lotterys about winning something you want?
Born in 1916 to an affluent family, Shirley Jackson grew up in San Francisco.
“Her mother, Geraldine, an elegant, rather vapid woman, was disappointed by her daughter and made it clear that she would have preferred a prettier more pliable one. She told Jackson she was the product of a failed abortion and harangued her constantly about her bad hair, her weight and her willful refusal to cultivate feminine charm. Long after she moved away her mother continued to send her letters criticizing her.”
-The New Yorker
Shirley married Stanley Edgar Hyman. Stanley thought she was brilliant, didn’t think she was ugly, understood and loved her. His downside was his principled insistence on sleeping with other women. She was to be good natured about it while listening to his sexual adventures. This behavior drove her into such anguish he was worried she was mentally ill. Yet, he refused to compromise his integrity on this issue. They eventually moved to Vermont where he was a literature professor and she was a writer, housewife and raised their four children.
She raged against him. She felt claustrophobic, lonely, oppressed and could not find a way out. She lived during the cold war era where women and men had their defined roles. There was tension between her creative ambition and her being a socially acceptable housewife. The town they lived in basically ignored her. She was unhappy. She gained weight, she drank and she took pills. She died of heart failure at the age of 48.
Much of her writing speaks to these experiences. “The Lottery” takes place in a small town in Vermont, a reference to the fact Shirley lived in a small Vermont town. She presents the town in the lottery as non-thinkers who have a blind acceptance of the lottery that has allowed ritual murder to become part of the town fabric. It suggests how dangerous “Tradition” can be when people follow it blindly. “Tradition is endemic to small towns a way to link families and generations.” Jackson pokes holes in the reverence that people have for tradition.
“If the villagers stopped to question it, they would be forced to ask themselves why they are committing a murder-but no one stops to question. For them, the fact that this is tradition is reason enough to give them justification."
“The Lottery represents any action, behavior, or idea that is passed down from one generation to the next that’s accepted and followed unquestioningly, no matter how illogical, bizarre, or cruel. It is a tradition, an annual ritual that no one has thought to question. Nevertheless, the lottery continues, simply because there has always been one.”
The Lottery came to me as a blog topic as we entered into the Holiday season. Mainly, because the Holidays have so much tradition associated with them. It got me thinking what is tradition and does it serve us?
“Family tradition, also called Family culture, is defined as an aggregate of attitudes, ideas and environment, which a person inherits from his/her parents and ancestors.”
Some of our traditions are rather innocuous in comparison to the brutality of “The Lottery”. The point of Jackson’s story is to disturb you enough to get your attention. It is so out of hand-so far beyond what we would see today it gives us pause. Makes us think.
One tradition we have as a pale comparison, none the less illustrating how things get out of hand are wedding showers. Per a 2015 article by Belinda Luscombe in Living and Marriage, the average age of people marrying in 1960 was 20 for the woman and 22 for the man. In 2015 the ages for both are between 28 and 32. The tradition of a wedding shower in 1960 for a woman was an event to help the woman start her home. A friend or relative sponsored the shower where they had punch and nibbles, and the bride to be received starter gifts for her home.
If today’s numbers are correct and the age is 28-32, many of these people are established in their careers and have most of the necessities for a household. So, the showers are ramped up a notch (or two). Now we don’t have a shower for the young wife getting her home together, it’s all couple showers! Stock the bar shower, Leisure time shower (movie tickets, CD, game tickets), Gourmet Cook showers, Monogram showers (sheets, towels etc.), Garden shower (tools for the yard), Kitchen showers, Room of the house shower and the list goes on.
How did we get here?
These showers are held at people’s houses or a club and probably cost as much a reception did in 1960 held in the church basement. All kinds of people are invited and gifts of a certain level are expected. Did I already say how did we get here? A tradition designed to help a young couple get started which maybe a gift of a kitchen strainer, has turned into a party with a purpose, where all invited are expected to contribute in a significant way to the take. Be sure to bring the Ford Expedition to get everything home! My point is sometimes it seems that tradition gets out of hand. It becomes something it was not intended to be.
In writing this blog I had to look up the following traditions because I didn’t know why we started doing these things.
-Why do we have Easter egg hunts?
-How did Valentine’s Day originate and become what it is now?
-What is St. Patrick’s day about?
-Why do we Trick-or-Treat?
Do you give these traditions much thought? I literally did not know the answers to these questions. I blindly accepted these traditions because they are just that-Traditions.
Do we have to perform the traditions we have since we were children because its tradition? Do we have to do certain things because “that’s what we do?” Do we ever stop to question tradition for its value to the members of our family, community and country as we exist now? Can we, should we- switch it up? Can we be fluid and evolve our perspective? Would that better serve us—or would it cause strife? Do we blindly adhere to unexamined traditions not even knowing why we do them? Are my traditions more important than yours?
I recognize that some traditions are important. Very important. Considering the gross example of "The Lottery", where tradition didn't serve the people; I am saying—let’s make a conscious effort to examine our own personal traditions and make sure they serve us and the people involved.
Something inside of me knows, that to shake it up sometimes is a good thing. It’s an honest thing. People are more open to change than one would think. Should this change into something new and if the answer is YES…do it. My guess is you will be glad you did.
“Our second danger is to associate tradition with the immovable; to think of it as something hostile to all change; to aim to return to some previous condition which we imagine as having been capable of preservation in perpetuity, instead of aiming to stimulate the life which produced that condition in its time. . . a tradition without intelligence is not worth having . . .”
-T. S. Elliot
Until next time.