From time to time in my unorthodox career, I’ve found myself teaching a class—be it in ethics or literature or law—which includes a reading of Shirley Jackson’s horror story, The Lottery, first introduced in eighth grade English (or it was back in the day) and having the singular distinction of being the one story most retain memory of—even those who despise fiction.
I can’t possibly spoil the story by telling the ending, as everyone must’ve read it. So it is only memory that I prod when I relate that the denouement involves a contemporary American village’s annual custom of stoning a lottery winner—this time, a housewife and mother—all in order to make the corn crop grow. At least that’s the implied reason, as the purpose is left vague. The power of the story lies in the chilling nonchalance with which the ordinary townspeople conduct this yearly slaughter.
My students react with predictable disgust at the characters’ ignorance—“doing something for which they have no good reason,” it is often expressed.
But surely those are the wrong objections, I say.
“You’re faulting them because they’re illogical? Because there’s no real correlation between human sacrifice and corn growth?”
If so, what if there was a “good” reason? What if blood spill were actually to make corn grow, and science said that it did. Would that make the townspeople right? What if hunger could be eliminated, lives saved, etc., with the shedding of this particular character’s plasma? [Read more…]