Written for Advanced Composition, Fall 2014, University of Southern California

​According to The New Yorker, when Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was first published, readers responded by calling it “disgusting” and Jackson “a pervert.” Other readers expressed confusion over the story’s meaning. Readers seemed genuinely mystified over how to interpret the short story. Despite its chilly initial reception, “The Lottery” has, over the years, been heralded as a masterpiece of the American short story and interpreted as an ominous warning about the perils of groupthink and tradition. However, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is better read in consideration of the premise that pervasive societal practices are not locked in by tradition, but by economic rationality. Focusing on the appeal to tradition alone conceals the notion that rationality dictates the choices of individuals even when not obvious. Furthermore, the structure of the society Jackson depicts manages to tell a great deal about social control. When one analyzes the story through the lens of prevailing economic theory, a much different picture emerges. Instead of a random drawing, the lottery is a manifestation of economic forces and values that drive this village at every scale. Readers rob the villagers of personal sovereignty and economic rationality when they allege that the villagers are just blindly following traditions. Second, reading the story as tale about tradition where each person is as likely as any other to be “chosen” ignores the differences between individuals in this society. The consideration of the difference between persons is crucial to understanding the economic message of “The Lottery”. Third, the very structure of the society that Jackson writes about informs readers of how rational agency becomes entangled with the appeal to tradition.  In this light, the story shows the actions of rational economic agents acting in their best interests instead of a mindless crowd beholden to tradition.

Rather than a simple random drawing, the lottery manifests societal intentions and serves to enforce economic outcomes in accordance with that society’s needs. The lottery is a yearly event in an unnamed New England village. The oldest man in the village, Old Man Warner, tells a neighbor, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” To a reader, this sounds like a farming superstition. However, this quote links the lottery to the agricultural industry, in addition to serving as a mechanism for insuring a successful harvest. By examining this statement through an economic lens, we can begin to understand the village’s underlying value. Unlike manufacturing, agriculture depends on a variety of uncontrollable factors such as drought or parasitic infestations. “Corn be heavy” is another way to say the quantity supplied is sufficient to provide for the townspeople, and, perhaps, make a profit. Within the context of this story, farmers discovered a variable that ensures their village’s agricultural (and, thus, economic) success. Since the town’s economic stability depends on the harvest, the town’s participation in the lottery is not so much tradition as it is an input in their production. According to basic microeconomics, every kind of firm or business operates on a “production possibilities function.” For example, a production function for corn would tell us how much corn a factory could produce using different amounts of labor or material. A factory cannot produce beyond its production function, but can expand if there is a change in technology or manufacturing. Thus, the lottery is more or less a necessary component of the agriculture production function. While the underlying mechanisms of the lottery that cause a bountiful harvest may not be fully understood, Old Man Warner’s statement makes it clear that at the present, or at least some time in the past, the lottery has been shown to be as necessary as manure or land.

Before continuing to explore the practice of the lottery, it will help to reframe the significance of some of the villagers and the hierarchy of labor within the village. The structure of the story’s society and the structure of our society are deliberately similar in some striking ways. Most of the villagers work in agriculture, but the story mentions two important individuals who do not: Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves. These men are distinguishable, because their industries do not depend on agriculture. Mr. Summers owns the village’s coalmine and is the most powerful man in town. While coalmines have their dangers, their production is usually not halted or interrupted by bad weather or bug infestations. Mr. Summers’ main advantage is that his economic security does not depend on village rituals. This explains why Mr. Summers has “time and energy to devote to civic activities.” Thus, Mr. Summers not only controls the villagers’ labor (either as a coalmine boss or controller of the lottery), but he also manages much, if not all, of their public leisure time. Mr. Graves is the postmaster responsible for the “proper swearing-in of Mr. Summers… as official of the lottery.” He serves as the government liaison to the business industry and legitimizes the whole event. In the United States, the Government heavily subsidizes agriculture to keep food prices low for Americans. Within the context of the story, it makes sense that a Government employee sanctions an agricultural event. It is not even known whether Mr. Graves himself participates in the lottery, but Jackson does mentions that, “Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves made up the slips of paper and put them in the box [the night before the lottery].”​

The structure of the village is comprised of three hierarchical levels that further divide the agrarian families and serve as the basis for how the lottery is drawn. This is important because it isolates the unproductive from the rest of the population while rallying the industrious. This sort of stratification has a practical aspect. Whether Plato’s Republic, or the United Kingdom’s Crown and Houses of Lords and Commons, societies are controlled because, and informed by how, they are divided. First, extended family members are grouped together based on male labor lineage. For example, a married daughter would be considered part of her husband’s extended familial group. The head of this collection of families is the oldest male laborer. These collections of families are then broken into individual family units that could be described as a “nuclear family.” The final level consists of the individual in each nuclear family or household. During the first round of the lottery, the head male draws to see which collection of families will be targeted for the lottery. This releases the rest of the villagers to prepare for their reaction to the winner. A lottery is then drawn to pinpoint a household within the collection of families. An additional lottery is drawn to distinguish a winner from the specific family.

​After seeing that the village depends on a successful harvest, readers can explore how the village’s labor-driven culture influences the winners and losers of the lottery. In this village, men appear to work predominantly on farms or in factories. It is shameful if the household does not have a working-age adult male. For example, during the first round of the lottery, Mrs. Dunbar states she will be drawing for her husband, who is at home with a broken leg. Mr. Summers asks whether she has any sons who could draw for her. His statement, “Wife draws for her husband,” is not just a factual statement, but a judgment on the reduced value of the entire Dunbar household. Mrs. Dunbar, a homemaker, is not as valuable as a man in the fields. It has marked her entire family as less efficient, thus putting them at risk of drawing the winning ticket. Tess also distinguishes herself by her tardiness, and then admits she was late because she had not finished the dishes. Tess, thus, manages to both offend the townspeople and expose herself as unproductive. ​After the first drawing, the crowd asks whether it is the Dunbars or the Watsons who chose the coal-smudged ticket. This is the damning proof that the lottery is not actually a randomized draw, but a manifestation of economic values. Mr. Dunbar is unable to attend due to a broken leg. Presumably, if he is unable to attend the event, he is unable to work. The Watson boy who “blink[s] his eyes nervously” and “walks awkwardly in the crowd” is standing in for a father–the adult male–not present.

​Choosing these two families symbolizes the reduction of that family’s production value. Thus, the village does not see their lives as important to the growth of the village. Their stoning would not affect how the village runs very much. One could even posit that these families may have been affected by the lottery before. No one mentions exactly what happened to the Watson boy’s father. One can safely presume that he was a previous lotto winner. On the other side of the spectrum is Old Man Warner who brags about how many lotteries he has participated in. Old Man Warner is a staunch proponent of the lottery, and takes pride in being the oldest man in town. His age, presumably, is a source of pride because it means he was and continues to be a successful laborer. Old Man Warner is too valuable as a laborer to be chosen as a lottery winner. Although he may physically be of less use than a younger worker, his age brings tenure and with that, experience, making him more valuable rather than dead weight.

​However, it is neither the Dunbars nor the Watsons who fail the village’s productivity test. Bill Hutchinson ends up drawing the “winning” ticket. He and Mr. Summers quickly figure out that they are able to skip the second round of the drawing. The Hutchinsons are the only family in their cluster — they are able to go straight to drawing individual household members. This is significant in that it hints that the Hutchinson family may not be strangers to winning the lottery. Perhaps this is a family that has long been seen as dead-weight in the community.

The outcome of the lottery is quite gruesome. Jackson, in creating an environment where a son could nonchalantly be given rocks to throw at his mother, wants to elicit responses of disgust and discomfort. It challenges us to see the complicated connections in our world. At this time in the village’s history, the lottery is an important and rational component of production, and a manifestation of their values. If there is a time when adherence to the lottery does not bring about the much-desired heavy corn, the villagers will likely replace or change their inputs. This is why Jackson leaves hints throughout the story that this is not a town tied to tradition: from using slips of paper instead of the traditional wood chips to replacing the ritual salute by simply acknowledging the person walking up to the lottery box. Jackson even brings up other towns and villages who have given up the lottery, insinuating that other towns’ values have begun to shift, or perhaps they found more efficient inputs.
​In conclusion, the analysis of economic need and social hierarchy show that practices that appear to be a matter of tradition are, in fact, the expression of rationale thought and economic necessity. The inability to discern between economic thought and tradition has real-life consequences and harmful effects. For example, in the mid-1950’s, T. Paul Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize winning economist, stated that farmers in developing countries lacked economic rationale and adhered mostly to tradition. This unfortunate oversight by an otherwise incredible researcher was sadly detrimental to the development research in Sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers robbed African farmers the benefit of economic logic due to their own cultural biases, and were thus unable to effectively help those farmers. After economists accepted that African farmers were rationale, they were able to focus on factors relating to production instead of tradition. On a more personal level, having the patience, tools, and courage to understand the economic rationale behind seemingly baffling events gives individuals the opportunity to better understand and navigate the complicated world they live in.

Works Cited

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1948.

Zhou, Jian-Ming. “Overcoming the Irrational Land Use in Africa and Other Regions of the World – A Critique to the Myths of Nobel Laureate Schultz and Nominee Hirschman.” Paper for the UNU-WIDER (United Nations University – World Institute for Development Economics Research ) Project Conference on African Development: Myths and Realities, 29 Mar. 2010. Web.


The end of 2013 was such a shit show that my only resolution for 2014 was to be able to hockey stop. It was simple, accessible, difficult, and mastering it meant I had “leveled up” to a new skating experience.

So now I can hockey stop. And like most other individual personal goals, the acquisition of such a coveted skill just leaves one hungry for more. It’s a cold, empty technical skill.

In 2014, I was a pretty terrible friend. Or, I feel like I was a pretty terrible friend. So many people I loved dearly had so many milestones this year that I barely remember experiencing. In an effort to escape my own grief, I fixated on incredibly tiny mistakes in others (when not focused on myself.). I became (what I considered) petty and focused on the insignificant. More importantly maybe, I never really reached out to anyone to just say, holy crap you guys, my guts feel like they’re hanging out and being stomped on every day, how do I even deal with life? And then the add-on thing about depression and grief (at least for me) is I know I’m not being very considerate of anyone else and then a feeling of guilt and shame starts to gnaw at me. Distances start to grow between people. The distances aren’t real. In fact, the distances are probably all in my head, or a result of just feeling sorry for myself.

I guess I felt that at no point in my life was I ever allowed to just feel sorry for myself and, man, the person who I thought was my best friend, the person I really cried to when boys broke up with me, the person who had always shown me so much kindness in so many terrible moments. That person I grew up with and cherished and loved. That person became a drug addict who told me I ruined his life and that he hated me and just like that he was gone and I didn’t know where he was and the days turned into weeks into months and I felt really sorry for myself.


(Because, also, survivor’s guilt is a thing.)

However, feeling sorry for yourself is the worst. It’s also boring. So many times I wanted to have all these awesome adventures except that I felt too sorry for myself.  But, then my dad died.

My dad’s death did not affect me much emotionally. At least in the way that most people experience their parents’ death. My parents weren’t real parents so the experience is a bit different. I mourned the loss of something ambiguously defined as father, but I had already resolved to never see my father as long as I live. I meant it, too. I have zero guilt about it. He was abusive and horrible and charming to everyone he met, and I knew that any reconciliation would only bring untold catastrophes into my life. But my older brother – who my father had left homeless when he was 19 with a wife and a baby, who had to painfully abandon his baby sister and baby brother in order to forge a new life from scratch, who never once attempted to contact my father – he was so disheartened to realize he would never get an apology.

My grandmother seemed so saddened that he never tried to make amends.

And my mother – well, I can’t really imagine.

Everyone in his life just seemed to feel such deep sadness over finally realizing that, yes, people like Old Man Marcus do exist and they do die and they never make amends and they never apologize for the pain. It’s the kind of knowledge that changes one’s outlook on relationships. Surely, at some point, my father was going to realize that he rampaged through his life burning and destroying everyone he contacted and he was going to apologize. Nope.

But then I thought about my dad at the end of his life also. I imagine that he must have been truly terrified. He spent 30 years writing and rewriting a Faustian adaptation of Melmoth, the Wanderer. He drank his own urine in the 1960s after reading a book claiming longevity. He opened one of the first health food stores and restaurants in Southern California – predating Follow Your Heart by 10 or 15 years. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t condone smoking. He drank exactly 1.5 glasses of wine per night and ate home cooked meals from scratch every day. He believed that the mind was an instrument that constantly needed tuning and you are never too old to do anything. And if they tell you you’re too old, just change your birth certificate, lie, or get a doctor to lie for you. Have bold ideas, borrow other people’s money, and then make them a reality and run away with the money. His first language was Yiddish, but he converted to Christianity, became a minister, became a Jew for Jesus, and then just decided to celebrate every religion that celebrated God. One of them would give him eternal life, he reckoned.

In the end, he died. Mostly by himself. Grateful, no doubt, for the few family members who only cared for him at his most neutered and vulnerable. I can imagine the confusion he felt wondering why I wasn’t there. Why Nat wasn’t there? Where were all his children?  Or even a sense of bewilderment about death itself. Death was never going to come for him. He was always so vibrant. So young. Didn’t he even drink he own urine in the 1960s? In those last moments, I don’t think he ever thought, “I wish I had been kinder.”

People matter. They really, really do. And I have been hit in the past few years by a few experiences that have made me feel like I don’t matter and it has turned me into the shell of a person I used to be.

So my resolution for 2015 is to learn to be a good friend again. Because, in the end, people and the relationships you cultivate and the experiences you share are the only things you can take with you anywhere and everywhere.

And thank you (y’all know who you are) for putting up with me this year and still loving me anyways. I can’t even think about how to “even life” without you.

I shake back and forth between being a woman with something to say and being a person who does not want to be seen. Between being a leader pushing forward and a little kid who doesn’t want anyone to notice her. Between feeling empowered by my accomplishments and realizing how tiny they are.

In Chinese, it’s considered rude to go straight to the point of something. Getting information or expressing disapproval is like a politely vicious dance between parties. It’s probably why I like it so much – because Chinese and I have dancing in common. I can never get straight to the point when I write.

In fact, everything above this sentence is just me trying to justify why I have a blog/website/domain. Who do I think I am?

So here is me getting straight to the point: I just want to write again. I want to write about myself and the things I like to do. I want to write about what it felt like letting my brother go and grieving every day to the day of that anniversary. I want to write about what it feels like finishing college and being an adult in college. I want to share passages out of books I read and write about current affairs and roller derby. I turn 30 in 2015. And I know that I cannot go another decade feeling like I have to prove my legitimacy as a human being to everyone I know.

Allow me to share a passage from Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook”:

We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. (“You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,” Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss into her ear)…Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self…

It makes me wonder if thoughtfulness would now be considered subversive. But there’s something to that, right? Because thoughtfulness and reflection mean you are an agent of action, and not just an agent of consumption. It means the personal is the political, and that we all have some sort of duty to communicate and share and listen and write.


I have met some pretty interesting students in the Beijing program. They’re worldly and well-traveled, and are the children of doctors and diplomats and businessmen. I feel a little bit like an outlier – I am almost 10 years older than most of the students and I am the only female. My background is definitely different.

At first, it was pretty alienating and I felt fairly lonely, but I think we’ve all warmed up to each other and I am genuinely fond of my classmates. I am constantly forced to challenge my opinions and preconceived judgments of others – which is always a fantastic experience. Learning how to talk to people from all different backgrounds with respect and understanding is a wonderful skill to cultivate. Last night, a classmate even told me I “changed [his] life” after a discussion we had. I realized if I had argued with him over something he said 5 minutes earlier, we would have never been able to reach that point. Another student said when he first saw me, he thought I was “thug”, because he had never really talked to anyone tattooed before.

Mostly though, I am thankful for the Beijing program students for making me feel like a “real” college student for a little while. From the midnight knocks on the door asking if I want to have a smoke to drinking beer and listening to Kendrick Lamar on an overnight train ride to just hearing what young college students think and dream about – these are the things I will take home with me.

I’ve read too many articles dissing Millennials while calling them out of touch and narcissistic. The ones I have gotten to know are really optimistic and imaginative. I find myself almost interviewing them regularly, because I was never taught to be so fearless and, man, do I want to learn. We are all in pretty privileged positions in this program, but I feel particularly privileged.

Even more than learning Chinese, even more than living in a different country, being surrounded by the optimistic and life-loving, globe-trotting future is what I am going to really remember.

I said it before, but the kids really are alright.

Travel brings power and love back into your life.


I lost someone really important to me this year. I have written that sentence so many times, and nothing ever follows. Reciting the stages of grief to myself helps sort the feelings into manageable clumps so the rest of my life can keep going. Ok, something finally followed that.

I lost someone very important to me this year. The last time I saw him was December 26, 2013, and in the throes of a nasty, mean drug addiction. The pain he brought home with him sent shock waves through everyone’s lives, in addition to deep, painful disappointment.

Someone very important to me this year told me I ruined his life after he stuffed illegal mailed-from-China chemicals up his nose and spent every dime he had on other lascivious vices. And I lost him. December 26, 2013 was the last time I saw him. No, I realize that the last time I really saw him was long before that. When I saw the boy I had lovingly tried to raise and support despite his only being two years younger, foaming at the mouth and rolling his eyes, I knew I had to go to China.

When I saw who my little brother had become – with all the cruelty and selfishness addictions nurture – I knew I had to go to China. When I had cried for the 99th straight day, curled up in the bathroom, figuring out what I could have done/what I should have done/ knowing I could do nothing, I knew I had to go to China. When I heard little tidbits about the trouble he has been engaging in during the past few months, I knew I had to go to China. I had to do something just for me. Something selfish and crazy and life-affirming.

So now, I am in China.