Aug 15

The Lottery and the Holocaust


The real horror of The Lottery is how rational and routine the ritual is. It's become so banal that it's origins are forgotten. Jackson must have been thinking about the Holocaust when she was writing this story. In all ways, the Lottery is how an American Holocaust would happen. Decentralised, democratic, wrapped in tradition with hints of folklore.

Wow, yes, we really dropped the ball on this one, so I really appreciate this reading. I think we take so much for granted that genocide is evil that we forget that it's even possible (despite the fact that genocide in the Balkans shaped my entire military career) and forget to empathize with people who were genuinely worried that they might be the victims of genocide because it had just happened to other people. And while the lottery in this story isn't a direct analog to a genocide, it is about a community willingly murdering one of its own because of the vague promise of prosperity and security -- which is certainly one way of essentializing the Holocaust.


And you're right that the banality is the real horror. This ritualized murder occupies the same mental category as fireworks on Independence Day -- it's just something you do when the calendar rolls around to this date.

My reading of this story doesn't make me think of a holocaust, it reads more as we as people forget the reason we have adopted a tradition when the conditions that caused the tradition to start change. It's more of a critique of mindless adherence to tradition without understanding the reasons for the actions you are participating in.


In an isolated agricultural community, we assume the lean times are winter which is actually not correct. In winter you have the previous harvest available. By late spring, early summer those supplies can be almost depleted if there aren't any goods being imported to sustain people. So the need to reduce consumption which becomes tied to the success of the harvest could lead to this type of dark twisted ritual.


That this continues to occur even though the conditions are changed and nobody questions why they still do this.


In the USA this is Thanksgiving. We as a society have no concept of what things were like when the first Thanksgiving happened. Yet we go through the motions, over done, but most of us never considering if we should. So I think this story was written after a particularly shitty Thanksgiving.

Haha, yes, I think this describes our relationship with almost all our holidays, which now are mostly just about buying cars and/or overeating. There's definitely a scathing criticism of our use of tradition in this story, and especially the uncritical but also uninformed obedience to it.

It's an interestingly written story, but I'm wondering what the real weird element of this story is (if there is one). Isn't it 'just' a black, psychological/sociological thriller? Or is the weird element that it doesn't explain why the people are holding on to this cruel tradition? Or is it in the crafty way in which Jackson changes the mood of the story (although I think that should be described as 'eerie', not 'weird')?

The weird is how routine the ritual is. And that is what is it, a ritual, we might not think of voting in that way, but it is. Maybe the most sacred ritual in America. When we think of human sacrifice, we think of dudes in robes, chanting, maybe a ziggurat and a roaring crowd. We might even think of a man on a cross. The Lottery shows how human sacrifice would happen in modern America.

Aug 29Edited: Aug 29

I enjoyed the podcast, as always. I don't see the story as a stand-in for the Holcaust. The Shoah, and the other holocausts of the last century (Armenian, Cambodian, Ukrainian) were targeted at specific groups, whether racial- or class-based. They were deliberate and calculated attempts at the destruction of another group. The horror of Jackson's story comes from the randomness, the arbitrary nature of the Lottery. I haven't heard it suggested in the literature as among the sources, but written not long after World War II, the draft lottery itself, which was grew more extensive as the WWII went on (about 10 million WWII soldiers were draftees, I'm not sure how many of those were killed or maimed in combat) may have been among the factors in Jackson's mind, particularly as she looked at her young sons. The military draft lottery, which seemed increasingly unfair and class-based during the Vietnam War years, probably also made the story feel more current when it was being taught in high schools in the 1960s. But I agree that Jackson was looking at the persistence of rituals and traditions long after they had outlived their use and purpose. The sense of betrayal at the end, as the lottery "winner"'s own husband and family turns against her, probably had something to do with Stanley Hyman's repeated infidelities. There was a feeling of estrangement by urban Americans from rural America that the very urban Jackson felt, as well as the anti-semitism the family experienced. That provided grist for a lot of suspense and horror, from "Deliverance" to "The Dunwich Horror" to "Straw Dogs" to T.E.D. Klein's "The Ceremony" and much more that I'm sure I have forgotten. Maybe the reason remote small towns are such a good location for horror is that we aren't really sure what is going on there. As Sherlock Holmes said, “They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." "The Lottery" was probably an influence on Peter Schaffer when he wrote the script for "The Wicker Man" in the 1970s, with its story of old pagan fertlity rituals persisting into the present day (and requiring a blood sacrifice), and possibly on the lesser-known "Eye of the Devil" with a similar storyline. Encyclopedia Brittanica made a short film adaptation of the Jackson story in 1969, which I remember watching in English class in middle school. It was more effective by being made with a cast of unknown small-town locals and a docudrama feel. It's worth a look:

Arbitrary, destroying communities, instituted to solve a problem that may not actually be a problem .... it does sound a lot like the Vietnam draft.


I may have said on the episode that I also recently read We Have Always Lived in the Castle for a new show I'm working on (out next year ???), and reading the two of them in such close proximity kind of broke my heart. I can't help but imagine Jackson stuck in this small town she hated because of a marriage that maybe wasn't working that well.


We're not too far off from recording a year-in-review episode of Elder Sign, and something that has jumped out to me is how few small-town horror stories we've covered so far.

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