Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”; a chilling allegory of conformity


the lotteryMy rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

First published in 1948 in the New Yorker, The Lottery is a brilliantly written allegory about society, conformity and tradition. The very short story (32 pages) follows a small village as they gather for their annual lottery, each person taking a slip of paper from a box where the winner will be the recipient of a rather unorthodox and brutal prize.

Shirley Jackson received a ton of hate mail when the story was first published, which is a good marker of how society has moved on. (Or maybe not? It’s not particularly shocking anymore). The build up is truly wonderful, particularly the detail surrounding the characters as they wait for their names to be called and their banal reaction to the macabre tradition.

It’s full of symbolism and a really interesting examination of how people behave and conform in groups, of which there are many real-world examples. The most notable were Ron Jones’ experiment The Third Wave, conducted in the US in 1967, and the later Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Both tried to emulate how Nazi prison guards perceived themselves to just be following orders. The latter had to be stopped after just 6 days when “guards” began to blindly follow torture orders and “prisoners” began to routinely accept worse and worse punishments.

More recent light-hearted examples include the April Fool’s Day joke on Reddit where people have to push a button every ten minutes. At the time of The Guardian’s report, Reddit users had pushed the button 715,123 times and counting. The tv programme Lost portrayed similar behaviour as its characters felt they had to keep pushing a button they discovered every 108 minutes (as instructed) even though they didn’t know what would happen if they didn’t. (If you never saw the programme, you can watch the footage of them pushing the button here and read about it on Lost’s Wikipedia here and the Enter The Hatch website here.)

All in all, it really makes you think about human behaviour, doesn’t it?

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3 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”; a chilling allegory of conformity

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