“In ‘The Lottery’ one person a year is rocked to death.”

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the short story mentioned in this sentence, read it here before proceeding, since the commentary deals with the surprise ending.

Shirley Jackson’s tale of municipally-sponsored stone-throwing has unsettled readers ever since 1948, when it was published in The New Yorker, and I know this student was trying to describe the events of the story. Perhaps inadequate exposure to the Old Testament during her formative years left her ignorant of the verb “to stone”; this is obviously her attempt to do without it.

Oh, dear, though, doesn’t she know there is  a verb “to rock,” and we do it to babies? I’m sure—well, pretty sure—she never pictured infants in treetops being pelted with stones (or, wait a second! maybe that’s why that bough breaks?). She’s not thinking of other uses of the verb “to rock,” either: Rock and roll had nothing to do with lithobolia on the dance floor; people aren’t strapped into rocking chairs in execution chambers; and in 1971 when Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently, Rock Me Slowly” was #1 on the hit parade, no one thought he was asking for a kinder, gentler stoning. (For that matter, what did she think “Everybody Must Get Stoned” was about? Aha! Maybe she thought “stoning” applied only to drugs!)

For me, my student’s statement evoked a picture of someone being literally killed with kindness as the rocking chair gathers speed and the rockee’s brain finally scrambles. (I know this really does happen in some cases of child abuse, but my mental picture is more Edward Gorey or Terry Gilliam than New York Daily News.)

Another student, writing on the same story, attempts to describe its surprise ending and, thanks to an ambiguous pronoun usage, complicates the final picture:

“This allows the reader to be shocked when Jackson tells us ‘a stone hit her in the side of the head.’ No one can truly see it coming.”

That’s what’s so perpetually engaging about all these errors: you can’t see them coming, and when they hit you, they really knock you for a loop. I guess you could say they rock you.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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