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The Connection of Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery" to the Story of the Salem Witch Trials: Research Essay

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The idea of a planned and deliberate retribution at the heart of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” reflects to some degree the vengeful ideology that inspired the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. Jackson took immense inspiration from tales of the macabre in an otherwise seemingly mundane society — she wrote, for instance, of seeking out the news articles depicting something horrendous like an ax murder for the sake of reviving her spirits after so many life-affirming stories about babies: “The lead article on the woman’s page was about how to adjust the older child to the new baby. I finally found an account of an ax murder on page seventeen, and held my coffee cup up to my face to see if the steam might revive me”. Though critics of “The Lottery” have seen it as a startlingly refreshing tale, Nebeker has observed that “beneath the praise of these critics frequently runs a current of uneasiness”. That uneasiness has to do with the fact that Jackson reflects in the narrative an irrational yet malicious evil that is used by the townspeople to purge themselves of their bile by venting their spleen on the poor “winner” of the lottery — who, in the story, is Mrs. Hutchinson — a willing participant in the lottery so long as she was never on the losing end of it.

Now staring down the rock-hurling firing squad she is like the poor girls persecuted during the Salem Witch Trials, which were as much about placing “blame” for some guilt arising out of the Puritanical social consciousness of New England: the judges landed the blame on the girls accused of witchery and their lives were forfeited. The motive of the townspeople in Jackson’s story is never revealed outside the fact that it is a tradition, which makes it all the more unnerving: the society in “The Lottery” is engaging in a malicious and violent event literally without any reason given — as though there were something evil in human nature that the people were simply giving voice to. In a Puritanical society, the idea of rooting out evil is the foundational idea. The experience of the Puritans of New England was based on that idea — that the New England Puritans could liberate themselves from the ills of society by living pure lives.

Hawthorne gave the lie to that idea when he wrote The Scarlet Letter, which told the story of a Puritan minister who has an illegitimate child with a member of his congregation. Hawthorne’s point was that the evils of society run through the hearts of every living human being because that is where God and the Devil are fighting — as Dostoevsky put it. Jackson does not focus on this religious or moralistic aspect of the fight. Rather, she simply exposes the hideous irony of living in a Puritanical society: underneath the veneer of niceness, life-affirming principles, and stories about babies there will always be buried a story about an ax murder. Ridding themselves of the ax murder was the doomed goal of the Puritans. The Salem Witch Trials was there attempt to project their own corruption onto others, accuse them, and execute them — hoping that their own sins and crimes would be buried with the convicted.

In “The Lottery” Jackson skips the foreplay and gets right to the chase: she is not interested in the psychology of the average Puritan attempting to justify himself while accusing another of some misdeed. She is interested in the fundamental manner in which members of society project their own sins onto others and then have no problem casting the stones at the “sinner” as though the sinner were an object of atonement — a pure lamb selected to bear the burdens of the righteous and take their guilt to the grave.

Of course, Mrs. Hutchinson is not a Christ-figure in “The Lottery.” She is an unwilling participant when it comes to her turn to accepting the blows — but the obvious analogy served up by Jackson is that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone” — and the irony is this: all the townspeople are casting stones at poor Mrs. Hutchinson, who is left grieving her fate: “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her. There is something extraordinarily Biblical about Jackson’s story, as Hattenhauer points out — and that is what facilitates the connection between it and the story of the Salem Witch Trials. The Salem Puritans were an exercise in attempting to do in society what no other group of people had ever before been able to do — purge themselves of the evil. Whereas Christ commanded His followers to judge not lest they be judged, the Puritans judged openly, feeling this was the only way to keep the evil away from themselves, to purge themselves of evil influences, and to maintain a holier than thou existence.

Jackson’s story can thus be seen as a reflection of the lie that Hawthorne exposed at the heart of Puritan America: the self-righteous, hypocritical belief in the purity of one’s own intention while accusing one’s neighbor of having a mote in his eye. Whereas Christ offered Himself up as the Eternal Victim, taking upon himself the sins of the world, Jackson’s townspeople have at the poor victim Mrs. Hutchinson and stone her to death. No one is redeemed because there is no sense of understanding the salvation that Christ offered. Jackson’s townspeople may as well be a group of pagans or heathens. They express no religious beliefs in their lottery: all they express is the need to give their evil impulse an outlet. Jackson essentially described the first “purge” in literature — but it was certainly not the first one in history or in Puritan America. The Salem Witch Trials could be considered the first historical purge — a variation on the idea of retribution being visited upon another.

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