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.
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.