When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, it
struck a nerve with readers. “The story was incendiary; readers acted as if a bomb had blown up
in their faces . . . Shirley struck a nerve in mid-twentieth-century America . . . She had told
people a painful truth about themselves” (Oppenheimer 129). Interestingly, the story strikes that
same nerve with readers today. When my English class recently viewed the video, those students
who had not previously read the story reacted quite strongly to the ending. I recall this same
reaction when I was in high school. Our English teacher chose to show the video before any
student had read the story. Almost every student in the class reacted with horror at the ending.
Why do people react so strongly when they read the story or see the video? What is it about “The
Lottery” that is so disturbing? To understand, one must examine the very nature of humankind.
Man’s propensity for violence has been around since Cain killed Abel. In the Old
Testament, the Bible speaks frequently of wars and killing. “And it came to pass . . . that all
Israel returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And all that fell that day, both of
men and women, were twelve thousand” (Josh. 8.24-25). The ancient Romans were known for
their bloodlust. “The ancient Romans loved gladiators. They loved the men, the weapons, the
fighting and the bloodshed. They also loved the death” (Baker 2). While most people today
would be horrified by “what the historian Michael Grant has called ‘the nastiest blood-sport ever
invented’ [it] was much loved in ancient Rome” (Baker 3). It is also well known that over the
years, various cultures have practiced human sacrifice. “The Aztecs probably offered up more sacrificial victims than any other people in recorded history. In this, they were enacting a
Mesoamerican tradition that originated far back in the region’s past” (Allan 19). Throughout
more modern history, wars have been fought resulting in the deaths of millions. Murders and
other violent crimes are inescapable. Throughout mankind’s history, it can be shown that man’s
capacity for evil has no limits. But is this what troubles readers of Jackson’s story?
“We cannot, in all honesty, make any serious claim that our own culture really abhors
violence. . . . Modern society still feels the need to watch violent events, whether it be at a
boxing match or spattered across the cinema screen” (Baker 5). Society today is bombarded with
violence. There is graphic, and often gratuitous, violence in movies and video games. Most
people do not give this type of violence a second thought. This may be because they know that
the violence in the movies or games is not real, but “The Lottery” was just a story; it, too, was
not real. So what is it about Jackson’s story that hits readers so deeply? What makes “The
Lottery” so disturbing?