By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ This line is a quotation from one of the most disturbing short stories of the entire twentieth century; but what does it mean?
Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, published in the New Yorker in 1948, has been read as a response to the events of the Second World War, and in particular, the rise of Nazism. How could so many supposedly ‘ordinary’ citizens have gone along with the atrocities of the Final Solution? How can working people with families and neighbours and everyday lives be swept up so easily into hysteria, superstition, and cruelty?
The story, then, is partly about the destructive power of groupthink, coupled with harmful superstitions which declare that one villager must be sacrificed each year in order for the rest of the village to be guaranteed a good harvest.
‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’ is a quotation which neatly summarises the superstitious attitudes of the villagers. It also illustrates how people can blindly follow tradition, even a tradition which involves an act of colossal evil, simply because it is an established ritual and part of their annual cycle of life – as much a part of their world as the gathering of the harvest or the coming of spring.
The line is quoted by Old Man Warner, one of the oldest inhabitants of the village. He scoffs at the news that a neighbouring village is considering giving up the annual ritual of ‘the Lottery’: namely, the annual draw whereby the unlucky sacrificial victim is chosen at random from among the villagers.
Old Man Warner tells us he has been part of 77 lotteries, so is something of a veteran. He has observed so many lotteries over the years that he has become convinced that there is a clear link between observing the lottery sacrifice and guaranteeing a good crop.
The rhyming quotation, ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’, is part of the old wisdom that has accrued around the ritual of the lottery. In the story, it has the ring of a traditional saying or proverb which has been handed down the generations. Many proverbs rhyme to make them easier to remember: compare ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ or ‘ne’er cast a cloud till may be out’ and so on. So Jackson’s invented line, which she gives to Old Man Warner, has an air of authenticity about it.
But what, then, is the meaning of this line from the story? Here, the line quoted by Old Man Warner means, essentially, ‘if a village holds the lottery in June, the corn will soon grow abundantly and there will be a good harvest for that year.’ In other words, he implies a causal connection between the two events: observing the lottery in June each year leads directly to a good harvest, with corn ‘heavy’ on the sheaf, later in the summer.
But ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’ also, by virtue of its brevity and its rather clipped, telegrammatic style, suggests the lazy manner in which Old Man Warner and his fellow villagers have absorbed and accepted the ‘fact’ of the lottery throughout their lives. They unquestioningly take it at face value and assume there must be a causal relation between their annual sacrifice of one of their neighbours and the good harvest they enjoy each year.
After all, for all we know, there may have been bad harvests in past years even when the lottery has been observed, but the villagers have glossed over this inconvenient fact and continued to hold fast to their harmful tradition.
In the last analysis, then, this quotation from Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ hints at the unthinking superstitions of the story’s characters.