BANNED MEDIA MONTH #13: The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson (1948)

The Lottery author Shirley Jackson

The Lottery author Shirley Jackson

Type of Media: Short Story

This series wouldn't be complete without at least one entry that gained infamy for being routinely banned by public schools. Since 1990 the American Library Association has been collecting a list of the books that receive the most ban attempts in America. It's a diverse bunch, with entries like Song of Solomon, The Fault In Our Stars, and Twilight all topping the most recent list. However, for my pick I'm going back a bit to a short story that, before making the list in the 90s, had been shocking people for nearly 50 years: The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson.

If you aren't familiar with The Lottery, you may just want to go ahead and read the story itself instead of the plot synopsis. It only takes 15-20 minutes to get through and any discussion of the plot necessitates spoilers. 

The Lottery focuses on a small New England town as the various families gather in the square for an annual lottery. The heads of families draw slips of paper from a black box, and the Hutchinson family draws a slip with a black mark on it. Tessie Hutchinson starts protesting that the draw wasn't fair, and the family draws another set of lots. Tessie gets the slip with the black mark on it this time. The townspeople all pick up stones and start closing in on her, presumably to kill her, and that's where the story ends.

The Lottery honestly isn't a great piece of literature, with its flat characters and largely uninteresting plot. You won't be re-reading this thing over and over for the pure joy of it. Instead it works best if taken like an episode of the Twilight Zone, a snapshot of a slightly skewed parallel world that makes statements on mankind. Take, for example, how the townspeople are calm when they go to kill Tessie because, even though they're doing something gruesome, it's such a regular part of their lives that it's mundane to them. Or, how Tessie is completely for the lottery before her family is drawn, but once she has something to lose she proclaims it isn't fair.

When The Lottery was first published in The New Yorker, it was instantly divisive. Hundreds of pieces of hate mail poured in. People were filled with outrage that Jackson would write something so brutal, and defended the small American towns they thought the story denounced. At the same time some literary critics praised it and offers came to adapt the story for television. There was even a split among The New Yorker's own staff, with most of the editors adoring it while many of the reporters were more lukewarm. 

All of this love and hate for The Lottery was flying around, even while many on both sides of the fence admitted they didn't really get what the story was trying to say. Jackson was hopeful that people would understand it eventually, though that hope diminished when school districts, primarily ones in Texas, started banning the story from libraries and curricula. When apartheid-era South Africa announced they were banning The Lottery, Jackson was almost glad. She reasoned that if they were banning it, they at least understood the story was not saying nice things about blindly following tradition.

These days The Lottery is required reading in English classes all across America (or, at least most of America). It's a great piece for teaching kids how to think critically about what they read and synthesize stories into insight. If you have a middle or high school-aged brother or sister or cousin and they haven't covered it, maybe pass it along to them. And if you've made it to the end of this entry without reading The Lottery yourself... c'mon. It's literally seven pages and it's a classic. You can even find it for free here.