Can the ending of a story be too powerful? On this day 73 years ago, Shirley Jackson published “The Lottery,” a short story that’s notorious for its unexpected and violent ending.
On June 27th of every year, a town of 300 holds a lottery. But it’s not a lottery for a prize—or a desirable prize, at least. The small agricultural town wants the harvest to be plentiful, so they follow the age-old tradition of the lottery. By drawing paper from a black box, the lottery randomly chooses a scapegoat when someone draws a paper with a black dot. Randomness is always fair, isn’t it? Tessie Hutchinson is chosen, a mother of three children. Shortly after, she is stoned to death by the other 299 townspeople.
But it’s for a good cause. As Old Man Warner says, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” You can’t argue with an age-old rhyme that’s rooted in superstition and carried on by blind tradition, can you?
Jackson makes this twist at the end of the story so effective because the reader is imagining an innocent lottery. She makes it possible by the townspeople being so casual, because they blindly follow what they’ve always done, even the children.
The theme is obvious: don’t blindly follow traditions for their own sake. Instead, scrutinize them. Tessie Hutchinson at the end of the story, as her friends are stoning her, cries out that “It isn’t fair.” She is effectively the voice of the reader: we realize it isn’t fair. The tragedy of this affair wounds us.
Take my grandmother, for instance. When talking to her about her childhood, I was surprised to hear that she did not read for many years of her young life. Why? She had read “The Lottery” and was so disturbed by it that she ceased reading stories for years. This brings us back to our initial question: can the ending of a story be too powerful?
Before we can answer that question though, first we must recognize what makes a story powerful in the first place: its connection with our human emotions. We could say, then, a story is too powerful when the emotions it evokes are incongruous with the theme it presents. In other words, a story may be too powerful when the extreme emotions it makes us feel are attached to an insignificant message. Is that the case for “The Lottery”?
Perhaps some could argue it is, but history speaks for itself as to all the death blindly followed tradition has created. Jackson warns us that traditions like the lottery can be followed today just as they have been in the past. Is her warning too powerful? I would say it’s not.
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