Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is a tried and true piece for analysis in American Literature courses. The ethical dilemma presented in this short story is strong, as are most of the issues that are brought to light in Jackson’s writing.
To first understand the issues that Shirley Jackson brings to light, we need an understanding of an ethical theory called Social Contract. James Rachels explains this concept simply in his article, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, by concluding that each person in a society needs to cooperate-or follow rules and standards set by that society- in order to maintain a community that benefits everyone (Rachels 9). We can take a look at our own society to see where this ethical theory comes into play. For example, if there was not a standard that people at Morningside College conducted themselves in a manner that kept each other safe, students and professors would not feel as if they were in a comfortable community environment; this would be destructive to our learning community.
For those who have not read this short story, it is about a small community of about 200. They get together and have their own lottery; every single person participates. The twist of this story is that the person with the black dot on their piece of paper is going to be stoned. The story hints quite frequently that the community really has no idea why they still follow this tradition. They just do.
How does Social Contract relate to The Lottery? At a critical point in the story, a character named Old Man Warner makes his opinion clear about the lottery known when another character mentions to him that there is a community thinking about doing away with the lottery all together. He says, “Pack of crazy fools… Listening to the young folks, nothings good enough for them…Used to be a saying about, ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’… There’s always been a lottery” (Jackson 706). Old Man Warren’s statement sums up this community’s reliability on their own Social Contract: They believe that without everyone conforming and obeying to the unwritten rule that this lottery must happen every year, their community will fall apart.
This is how they rely on their community to survive year after year: By stoning someone, but not really knowing why. This lottery is an unquestioned tradition. It is a Social Contract they follow, and this is meant for us to take a look at own own unwritten and unquestioned social contracts. Why do we dress a certain way or fear being slut-shamed? In what sort of environment is it okay to share your opinions, and where is it better to shut-up and conform? These are questions that we have to ask ourselves, and hopefully challenge the social contracts of society with our answers.