When Citizens Are Human Sacrifice: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, Scapegoating and Covid-19


As the daily Covid-19 case count soars to new heights here in the United States (even as we are told by our federal government that it is important we all get back to work and send our children back to school), I find myself thinking of Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery” (1948).

In this insidiously morbid story, Jackson skillfully conveys a dystopian reality in which a woman, Tessie, is stoned to death after ‘winning’ the town lottery. The stoning of the woman reflects ancient traditions (as well as those illustrated in myths) of sacrificing a scapegoat in order to benefit the community. In the case of ‘The Lottery’, the woman was sacrificed because it was her village populace belief that they needed a blood offering to ensure an abundant harvest.

What makes ‘The Lottery’ story extraordinarily eerie and sinister is that it takes place in the 20th century, and the stoning of the woman is woven within the fabric of a town that is nondescript and seemingly ordinary. The lottery and the planned scapegoating and ritual sacrifice appears to be viewed in as casual a manner as a conversation about farm equipment, taxes, or the weather.

The scapegoated woman selected via the town’s lottery system served as a symbol of a non-productive member of society who is unable to serve the ‘economic machine’ and therefore has no usefulness. She therefore must be sacrificed. It is a weeding-out process in which the weak must die to make room for the capable and strong members of the village.

Jackson’s story exemplifies an emotionally numb society, one in which the villagers are impatient for the lottery process and the stoning to be completed so they can resume their daily tasks and get back to work.  The villagers have no obvious feelings about Tessie’s brutal stoning as they passively observe her suffering, nor do they display feelings toward each other. They move about in a ‘consensus trance’, devoid of compassion or empathy.

Like the villagers in Jackson’s story, it seems that the Trump administration is willing to sacrifice citizens in a ‘practical’, unfeeling, and dehumanizing manner in order to “keep the economy going”. Massive increases in Covid-19 cases (over 77,000 new cases were reported yesterday) are referred to still as “embers” – little fires that need putting out.

At what point do we acknowledge that the village itself, along with the crops, is in danger of burning down?

Rebecca Mandeville, MFT

Rebecca Mandeville, MFT

Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT is a Psychotherapist and trauma-informed Recovery Coach, as well as an internationally recognized Family Systems expert. She served as Core Faculty at the world-renowned Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, where she first began identifying, defining, describing, and bringing attention to what she named (for research purposes) Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA). You can purchase her book, 'Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role' on Amazon.

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