Book review: ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
In true Tostevinwrites fashion, this is a review of a short story that’s 72 years old. So yes, this will contain spoilers. You’ve had plenty of time – and if you’re trailing a few decades behind like I was, quick, quick, sneak off and read it here before I start talking about it.
I’ll even include a Lottery-appropriate GIF here to create a barrier. You’re welcome.
Right, still with me? This was the short story that caused such an uproar in 1948 when it was first published in the New Yorker, that the magazine received the most mail it had ever received in response to a work of fiction. Shirley Jackson herself received so much hate mail she could barely carry the load of forwarded letters home. Clearly, she hit a nerve with the American readers.
‘The Lottery’ focuses on the community of a small unidentified American town who come together annually to select a member by chance to be stoned to death. Hints about securing a good harvest are included, but we never really find out why, other than “there’s always been a lottery.”
The story addresses a number of different themes in its short text; that of violence, of mob mentality, of conscription, of meaningless sacrifice and scapegoats, of men and women carrying out their ‘duty’ unquestioningly no matter the human cost. In interviews, Jackson talks about the insidiousness of the very first sentence; about luring the reader into a false sense of comfort by hiding such violence in a beautiful setting: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”
Chillingly, when asked in an interview why she thought her story was so hated, she answered that “people at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.” Could there be a more clear indication of why this violent narrative hit a nerve with the audience?
In ‘Consider This: Moments in my writing life after which everything was different’, Chuck Palahniuk uses Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ specifically to illustrate many of the techniques outlined in the minimalist writing approach used by Tom Spanbauer and himself.
The first being the act of hiding the gun in your story. “Where’s your gun?” is one of Chuck’s favorite questions to ask writers. WHEN have you set the clock to run out and WHERE have you planted a seed of the element which will bring down the third act?
In this novel, Jackson expertly plants her ‘gun’ immediately in front of you, even going back to its seemingly innocuous form numerous times: “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”—eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.”
We initially see only a childlike game, a setting of the scene. The stones mean nothing, until they do. And a few thousand words later, they’re used to stone the selected to death.
Importantly, as readers we’re given a single sentence warning – an opportunity to have the penny drop – before it’s spelled out for us. “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones”, Jackson writes. And then, in terrible technicolor: “The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready”.
Secondly, Jackson makes use of the technique of recycling objects to greater meaning each time they’re described. The “little black box” is introduced early on, and with every revisit we learn something about it – the fact that it’s older than the oldest man in the town, that it’s scuffed and cracked, that it is annually called upon etc. There is something about this box that captivates the town crowd, and that indicates to us that it represents so much more than it did on first attention.
While this short story is the perfect example of establishing and raising tension, I gave it three stars because I’ve been spoiled by the beautiful language in my recent reads. Jackson is no poet, her prose is thick and focused mostly on action accuracy. Full of unnecessarily lengthy sentences and buckets of semicolons.
Still, there’s an awful lot to be learned from this piece of work (and it has inspired numerous films and novels since, including the Hunger Games). From a structural point of view, and the subject matter. This ignited rage and hostility from a society that had been torn apart by World War II only 3 years before, and had seen people lost to a similar kind of ‘random’ fate.
Still, this story doesn’t go to the very darkest corners that it hints at. Little Dave, likely no more than four years old, is shortlisted along with his immediate family. And though Tessa (his mother) eventually draws the black spot and is chosen as the sacrifice, it is made clear to us that the township would have stoned that baby to death without hesitation if he was chosen.‘The Lottery’ focuses on the community of a small unidentified American town who come together annually to select a member by chance to be stoned to death. The story addresses a number of different themes in its short text; that of violence, of mob mentality, of conscription, of meaningless sacrifice and scapegoats, of men and…
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Despite writing a handful of excellent gothic horror novels, including The Haunting of Hill House (just made into a film for the second time), Shirley Jackson seems destined to be best remembered for her great short story The Lottery (read an online version). Originally published in The New Yorker in 1948, and a a staple of High School English classes ever since, it elicited some of the most spirited response in the history of that dowdy weekly. The story is a stunning indictment of something but is sufficiently ambiguous that many different individuals and groups were able to take personal offense at its implications.
It would seem to me though, that there is a pretty conventional way of reading it; one that both touches upon a basic human truth and offers fairly little offense to anyone. Take it at relative face value and the Lottery represents any human institution which is allowed to continue unchallenged and unconsidered until it becomes a destructive, rather than a constructive, force in men’s lives.. After all, in the story, the reasons for holding the Lottery are long forgotten, other than the platitudinous “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”. And the rituals connected to it, other than the making of participant lists, the use of the old ballot box and the swearing in, have mostly fallen by the wayside. All that really remains is a rigid adherence to a hoary tradition.
Now folks can, of course, freight it with specific signifigances–read the whole thing as an attack on capitalism (see Dave Sandberg’s review below ) or religion or small town conformity or agrarian culture or any of a number of different things. But it seems to me that the most straightforward reading allows it to impact on all of those things. Simply put, the fact that something has been done a certain way for a really long time does not necessarily justify its continuance.
If this powerfully disturbing story seems like too heavy a cudgel to wield to make such a self evident, unnuanced point, let’s not underestimate how difficult it is to teach people anything. After all, Plato has maintained the title of world’s greatest philosopher for a few thousand years now on the basis of “Know thyself”. So, why shouldn’t Shirley grab a spot in the limelight for herself with a story that admonishes us to examine our civic rituals, especially since she couched her admonition in a great American gothic horror tale, which still retains its visceral power to shock us.
DAVE SANDBERG’S REVIEW:
“Proto-Marxist Images in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery'” by David Neville Sandberg (10/27/99)
In Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, we see the nascent beginnings of a Marxist sensibility in American short literature begin to emerge and express itself. Despite the intrinsic quirkiness of Jackson’s writing, and maybe because of it, we can really get a sense of the suppressed socio-economic status of the repressed American need for socialized regulation and state control of business and market forces. Liberty, Jackson demonstrates, is illusory in the American psyche as it is predicated on the exploitation of a sub-class which must be sacrificed for the benefit of all. The victim in the story is emblematic of the black, latino, and immigrant segments in our society who were fed into the American industrial maw for consumption as labor commodities. Indeed, without this constant feeding the pastiche of the American economy would invariably collapse from the inertia of its own antiquity and social unfairness.
Capitalism, that mermaid on the rocks who lures sailors to their doom, must have her victims as well as her successful children. She must have losers as well as winners, and for the losers there can be no mercy and no reprieve from the public invalidation and execution of the exploited workers who toil daily in sub-standard work conditions and receive inadequate pay, health care, and social services. The true genius of this work is its setting. Jackson has brought this indictment home to middle America, to the heartland streets of America’s small villages. Economic evil does not flow outward from America’s cities but inwards from the rural belt – from the heartland towns and villages where ignorance of better social systems deliberately inculcated in warped public educational standards keeps the American agrarian classes in a state of hostile xenophobia to new socialist ideas and reform.
ANDREW GELLER’S REVIEW:
Boy, what a horrific story. I had not read it for many, many years. My academic instinct is to insulate myself from the horror by concentrating on the details to examine the crux of the story, for example, the notion that no one liked to upset the tradition represented by the black box or how much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded.
The story describes the catastrophic effects of tradition made separate from its roots. Who knows if the stoning at the end of the lottery was even its original intent or effect? So much of the ritual had been lost. On a large scale, one can read it as an indictment of the medieval Church for maintaining its control through meaningless ritual and homage to an earthly leader while subverting the gentle lessons of Jesus to essentially imperial intents. By extension, one can indict central authorities that keep control through meaningless bureaucratic, somewhat ritualized activities — filling out forms that are filed away having no effect but to delay attainment of the original goal of the activity.
ZACHARY BARNETT’S REVIEW:
Ahhhhh, summa time and the catfish is jumpin’. Recommended vacation reading alongside other childhood greats, such as Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island.
I remember seeing the movie in school. Disturbing. If I had only had an assault rifle.
Actually, the whole point to this fable is to make grotesquely clear Man’s absurd fear of change. And, of course this all goes down in a New England village — New England being the nerve center of the American “fraidy cat” and where it is perfectly customary to go about the daily routine with a sharp stick in one’s eye.
On another note, Mrs. Hutchinson deserved it.
MARY-ELLEN JUDD’S REVIEW:
Sorry I’m not as eloquent (wordy) as all you scholars (people with too much
time on their hands), but here’s my interpretation (stab at it). Let me know
what you think.
I say that it is an allegory(?) for how random life can be. The old adage
that good things happen to good people and vice versa is seldom true. Death,
illness, ostracism and bad fortune are seldom doled out fairly.
STEPHEN JUDD’S REVIEW:
I think that Andrew’s analysis is a good one if you look at the story
analytically and intellectually. However, what really intrigues me is the
visceral reaction of the first-time reader. I wish I could read the story
for the first time again. Here’s my take:
The reader is repulsed by the idea that a town could merrily go along with
this tradition that is like lambs being led to slaughter. But Zach’s point
about Mrs. Hutchinson shouldn’t be written off as a whacko’s reaction (not
that Zach isn’t a little whacked.) I think the average reader does
disapprove of Mrs. Hutchinson’s whining about the unfairness of the
lottery. what does that say about the readers’ own sensibilities? Had
Mrs. Hutchinson shouted out at the beginning that the lottery was insane and
shouldn’t be conducted, we might view her as a hero. Instead she
participates until she realizes it will affect her family and begins to
complain, not about the fact of the lottery but that it unfairly resulted in
her family being chosen. The average reader (that leaves Dave out!) has
ingrained that once you opt into a process, you accept the consequences
bravely. (On a side note, even Christ cried out in despair when he finally
came to the end.) In conclusion, I think The Lottery sucks the reader in,
and if the reader examines his reaction to the story he may be surprised at
what he feels. And these feelings are as much a result of our tradition as
NEIL GOLDSTEIN’S REVIEW:
well, it’s pretty obvious to me:
1) the blind lead the blind.
2) People look out for themselves first.
3) Intelligence cannot overcome blind mass animalistic hysteria.
4) Duck and get out of dodge when someone is showing you whip ass.
CHARLIE HERZOG’S REVIEW:
I think it’s Pat Buchanan’s revisionist allegory for our involvement in World War II.
* Mrs. Hutchinson is the United States reluctantly entering a war that
she supported while not directly involved. Had she just stayed home and
washed the dishes, the outcome would’ve been much different.
* The Hutchinson family represents our NATO allies, gleefully showing
off their free passes while America takes on all the responsibility for a
war in which she has no defining interest.
* Mr. Summers is Hitler, essentially a benevolent despot controlling
the pace of the lottery/war, trying to exert his influence in a specific
sphere without extending past agreed to borders.
* The children of the townspeople are the Nazis, blindly
participating in a cause without examining its moral consequences.
* The townspeople represent Russia, a large seething mass that Mr.
Summers desires to control for his own reasons (the new lottery box). Had
the townspeople acquiesced to his demands for the new box, surely his
requests would have ended there.
* There is no allegorical reference to the Jews in this story, as they
aren’t important enough to merit mention.
The Lottery is of course exactly the right title for this allegory, since it
reflects the random nature of the course America has chosen in its foreign
policy engagements. America’s death at the end of the story is a prediction
of our eventual fall should we continue to get involved in foreign wars
instead of “Putting America First.”
DOROTHY C. JUDD REVIEW:
I found “The Lottery” frightening because it called to mind times we stand
around and watch something happen and do nothing about it just because it has
always been done that way.
I don’t get all political on this stuff; just a gut human reaction. 🙂
“Nascent beginnings of Marxist sensibility”?
“Suppressed socio-economic status”?
I’m sorry Orrin, but your buddy is way off here. The lottery is a random
process and has more to do with the Fickle Finger of Fate than the
oppression of the minority. And being a random lottery, it has more to
say about natural selection and the inability to predetermine one’s own
course through life, than the actions of a governing body. Yeah, there is
that whole inability to change the inertia of a group/tradition; notice the
lone cry in the wilderness, ie., Mrs. H, is the one that is ultimately buys
it — ala Jack McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest. So becoming the victim of
oppression is the combination of being in the wrong place at the wrong time
(random) and being the squeaky wheel (one’s choice).
BRYAN FRANCOEUR’S REVIEW:
All right, already. Professor-and-Poet-Laureate Judd has been crawling up my butt to churn out some kind of pap about “The Lottery” Silly me, I thought I left writing vague, spineless papers for irritating professors behind me when I graduated from college.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has about as much to do with Communism vs. Capitalism as “The Haunting of Hill House” has to do with centralized zoning laws. Oh, sure, you can drag a bunch of symbollic garbage out of your rear to show that the black voting box is really the dark core of evil in men’s souls, but really; that kind of dreck is best left for freshman Lit majors. And Dave.
What “The Lottery” is really about are the broader issues of not blindy obeying authority and not doing things just because they are tradition. The people of the town don’t even stop to think about why they are killing someone, and we never find out through the course of the story (personally, I think it was some kind of population control measure, but that’s a guess).
When people talk about getting rid of the lottery and of other places that have gotten rid of it, the town elder casts scorn upon the idea. Why do things differently? The old ways work just fine for us, and we’re not going to be swayed by some big city types.
So the morals of the story are: “Question authority” and “Just because something is old, doesn’t make it good.”
Grade: (A) Orrin C. JuddBrothersJudd.com reviews Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery – Grade: A ]]>