Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fixing "The Lottery"

Warning: Before you read this post, read Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery."

So I had students write about Jackson's story, and one wrote a startling piece about how the lottery in the story is fixed. I was not sure I was utterly convinced, but then I suddenly was. Here's what I wrote to the student:

There's a fascinating point to be made here about the rules of fiction. After all, someone does pick out the victim: Jackson herself determines who the victim of the lottery is—or perhaps I should say of "The Lottery." The rules of fiction require her to have the victim of the lottery be a character she has already introduced to the reader. Further, in a context in which it is important that most of the figures be as nondescript (and hence "normal") as possible, the characters she does introduce to the readers are going to be the ones who "stand out" by stretching the rules of the game in various ways, as you have described.

In a sense, one level of the story's allegory is literary: this is a story about how stories work. They work by assuming a background of "normalcy" against which the outstanding qualities of the main characters can be established. By "outstanding" here, I do not mean "excellent" but something more neutral: the characters might be heroes, or villains, or even hypernormal people, but in one way or another, they have to stand out against that standardized background.

In most fiction, then, the author's job is to give the reader such "outstanding" characters to identify with. In "The Lottery," Tessie stands out in this way: not because of her excellence, but simply because her difference from the crowd makes her worth mentioning, whereas the crowd's standardized behavior, once established, recedes into the background. This makes the horror of "The Lottery," then, as powerful as it can possibly be: the reader identifies with the "outstanding" character, and the object of the reader's identification gets murdered. And all this is done in the most everyday way possible, which only increases the horror.

But all this also proves your point: Tessie Hutchinson's slight difference from the crowd around her selects her to be the victim. But it is not the lottery that selects her as the victim, it is "The Lottery" and its genre that do so. How? The same way that the characters in the story do so: by following the rules of the game.


Anonymous said...

Hey, you have an honorable mention on Reginald Shepherd's blog in one of his posts today. He even made a "label" out of you. You're going to get some more page views now.

He also mentions Geoff Brock and his Weighing Light.

kort warg said...

'This makes the horror of "The Lottery," then, as powerful as it can possibly be: the reader identifies with the "outstanding" character, and the object of the reader's identification gets murdered' -

Not much more to add. This is it. By following the rules of the game 'fiction writing', fiction writer Jackson came to the point where she had to sacrifice her focal point of reader identification to save her fiction from being dissected alive.

Poeta poena poetae: poet poets punishment is.

The more lively the main character is evoked by Jackson, the more likely it is that it distracts us from getting what the author wanted us to muse about.

Donald Brown said...

My working assumption about "The Lottery" was that it was simply about the persecution of difference. Tessie is shown to be different, so Tessie must die, by the rules of the community. This does mean that the lottery in "The Lottery" is fixed; who will die has already been determined. What "The Lottery" does, as fiction, is make the reader perceive that death as pre-determined, inexorable because the rules by which the community is guided determine who can and can't thrive there.

The strength of identification, is, as Andrew says, the method by which the author tips her hand: we will side with the interesting victim over the monolithic oppressor. But what makes the story work, as horror, is that, in the end, we are with the community -- the readers of "The Lottery" have in a sense taken part in the lottery by seing someone else suffer and order restored.

Andrew Shields said...

But if the lottery in "The Lottery" is fixed, how come there is no representation of the fixing in the story? That is, in the world of the narration, the lottery seems pretty clean. If you want to argue that the lottery (and not just "The Lottery") is well and truly fixed, a scam, a fake, then there ought to be some evidence of that somewhere in the story, other than the fact that Tessie is distinguished from the other characters by her lateness.

Anonymous said...

The lottery within the fictional setting is not fixed in so far that anyone altered the slips of paper. What I was trying to say was that there is some sort of "supernatural" influence, not Shirley Jackson as the writer but rather something in the direction of "Bad Karma." That's also why I brought up the issue of the "butterfly effect," in a very ineffective way I have to admit.

But the lottery itself (the black box, the slips of paper, and Mr Summers) is not manipulated at all. As you said, there is no evidence for it. If it were fixed another question would arise: why the heck are they having the lottery if they already decided on who (or whom?) they are going to whack?? Would they honestly make such a big fuss out of it for the sake of tradition?

Now, there is another way of reading the story that just popped into my head. Let me sketch it out: the lottery IS fixed and everybody in the village knows about it. The people are actually so traditional that they go through with the ritual of drawing lots. It was already decided beforehand that Tessie would have to take the hit (I'm not yet sure how). That's why she isn't on time. She was "hiding" in her house contemplating whether she should run away or sacrifice herself for the greater good of the community. Then her guilty conscience comes into play and she decides to go after all. During the lottery she cries out that it's not fair. It's not fair that she has to be the one.

This could also tie in with Jackson being the one who determines the victim. The villagers turned to their "god" (Jackson) and asked who (or whom?) she would like to be their sacrifice. [There are probably some inconsitencies in this new reading, though. I didn't have enough time to think about it.]

mrjumbo said...

John Cage specialized in "aleatoric" composition, which is to say he would allow random processes to govern the direction of the work. His partner Merce Cunningham was well known for choreographing dance the same way: He might let an I Ching cast, for example, determine how many dancers should move in a particular direction, or what direction that would be, or how far to go. (An artist choosing to incorporate random process in art is still controlling art, just as a composer does who lets his music be governed by rules of harmony.)

If Jackson had composed her story this way, would that shade your reading? If she had thrown dice to determine characters' ages, genders, names, and then flipped coins at each stage of the story to decided its progress, would the story be stronger? Would it matter whether you knew she had constructed the story this way? If the author has already decided the outcome of the lottery, is the rest trivial?

Most writers are familiar with a process where the characters take over the story and do things that surprise even the writers. Obviously someone's hand is writing it all down, but control over specific content in art is sometimes murky.

Random choice turns up interesting nuggets anyhow. My brother and I have a running dialogue about odd collisions in randomizers that control the sequence of songs played on an electronic device. Examples of these are Apple's iTunes and a wide variety of MP3 players. Even with a computer simulating random outcomes, you end up with a Beatles song next to a John Lennon solo number, or two in a row by a given artist, or--my favorite--a song about Virginia City playing just as you're driving into that town. Random distribution is not uniform.

(A Caltech astronomer confused the two lately when three quasars were noticed in close proximity to each other. "To find two of them so close together is very unlikely if they were randomly distributed in space," he said. This assumes that a random distribution will be uniform.)

The opening of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" presents another look at authorial control over random events. As the curtain rises, the two title characters argue about probability in a coin toss. The coin they're tossing has come up heads eighty-five times in a row. Part of our contract with the playwright is that we agree to believe this. But it is a sequence that should be expected, eventually, if the coin toss is truly random. Would you say Stoppard fixed the outcome of this story, or Shakespeare? Does Jackson control the outcome, or does she just control the camera, deciding which characters to let the reader see as the story builds?

Andrew Shields said...

Let's assume Jackson had the idea of the lottery and decided to write a story about it. She'll start sketching out the details of the story: thinking about what the village looks like, the paraphernalia of the lottery, the people who live there, and the procedure, among other things. She'll also start sketching out the plot—and while doing so, she will begin to focus in on the villager who is going to win/lose the lottery.

Now, as I argued, in order for her to have the maximum possible effect on her reader, she is going to decide to have the victim appear earlier in the story than just at the end. Further, she is going to give us some details about the victim—we will learn something about the victim's life, enough that we will have already become familiar with her before the end of the story.

One could argue that Jackson could also focus on the "stoners" and ignore the victim—but there are too many of them for such an approach to be effective in a short story.

Renew then argued that the fix was on because Tessie stands out; my argument is that Tessie stands out because a different fix was on, the fix not of the lottery but of "The Lottery"—of literature.

It's possible, of course, that the lottery in "The Lottery" was a side effect of the writing process—that Jackson began with the village, or with Tessie, or with Mr. Summers, or even with Old Man Warner, and only ended up with the lottery. But somehow I doubt it.

So did she control the outcome, or just the camera? Both, and everything else, too. BUT she played by the rules of literature, just as the villagers played by the rules of the lottery.

(Breaking the rules is supposed to be cooler, and it is of course necessary to the long-term development of an art form, but using the existing rules to great effect is also a worthy goal.)