This month marks the anniversary of the death of Shirley Jackson, one of American literature’s most underrated authors. As a fitting tribute to her memory, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the first short story I ever read (at least the earliest I remember). Of course, I am referring to “The Lottery.” It was initially published by The New Yorker in 1948 where it was met with considerable controversy. In fact, Jackson was not prepared for the backlash from readers who viewed the story as rather horrific and depressing. Despite these outcries from the public, “The Lottery” would become one of the staples of the high school classroom while the name Shirley Jackson would be elevated to the heights of Gothic fiction writers. Although written nearly a century ago, “The Lottery” still remains a relevant piece of fiction.
The story opens on a warm summer day as children of a small village run around gathering stones. The descriptions of blossoming flowers and richly green grass would not be out of place in a story by Ray Bradbury. There is a feeling of calm surrounding this scene as the townspeople slowly gather in the town square. The conversations among the villagers revolves around the daily activities. Mr. Summers, the man who facilitates the annual lottery, reminds everyone of the rules of the proceedings. The event itself was just a routine civil activity, no different than the teen dance or the Halloween festivities. Tessie Hutchinson arrives late and looking flustered, having forgotten that the lottery was taking place that day. It all feels so commonplace. Yet, Jackson manages to create a subtle chill beneath the calm. As Tessie’s husband draws the marked piece of paper and the family gathers on the stage, a sense of dread slowly fills the page. The unsuspecting reader catches this feeling without fully understanding what is happening. The story builds up to its dark conclusion, providing a classic twist ending.
While the horrors of “The Lottery” may seem tame to today’s readers, Jackson was a pioneer who developed the literary tool of dystopian foreshadowing. Series such as The Hunger Games and Divergent may not have existed without the foundation which Jackson built. The images of the children innocently gathering stones and Tessie’s anxious behavior are subtle clues that something is not quite right about this event. However, Jackson was such a maestro that she managed to deliver an ending that nobody could have predicted. Holding back the reveal until the final sentence was nothing short of brilliance on her part.
In addition to the foreshadowing, Jackson also explores the psychology of the villagers. It continues to astound me how an author manages to flesh out so many characters in just a handful of pages. Characters like Mr. Summers and Old Man Warner, who have experienced several lotteries, fight to hold on to these ancient and barbaric practices. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Tessie, who realizes that the lottery is wrong. The most interesting psychological facet of this story is the contrasting ideologies within Tessie’s own family; while she hates the ideas behind it, her own family find nothing wrong with it. I find this division of beliefs eerily relevant in this divided country under the Trump administration. Jackson’s views of the mob mentality fit in nicely with the political crisis that our country currently faces. Although published in 1948, it appears that we may still have some work to do in order to become accepting of progress.
“Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.”
Have you read this short story? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.