Why Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” Still Matters

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.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

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. 

 

 

 

 

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27. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess

No matter how hard they try, some authors can never escape from the shadow of one of their most celebrated works. Anthony Burgess, the artist behind A Clockwork Orange, is no exception. In the introduction to my copy, he writes that “it seems likely to survive, while other works of mine that I value more bite the dust.” I refer to Burgess as the “artist” because A Clockwork Orange is truly an experience unlike any other. It is a vibrant rendering of the dark side of human nature, one that will resonate in the reader’s mind for days after finishing it. Although I only have vague memories of the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation, this book will no doubt remain with me for quite some time.

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The narrator of A Clockwork Orange is Alex, a fifteen-year-old living in a near future dystopian England. Alex loves to hang out with his gang, known as “droogs”, and terrorize his neighbors at night through physical and sexual violence. One night, Alex is caught by the police and sentenced to several years in prison after a woman he terrorized dies from her abuse. After being incarcerated for two years, Alex learns of a new experimental treatment that could potentially “cure” him of his violent tendencies and allow him an early release. Alex soon learns that the “treatment” is far worse than anything he could ever imagine.

A word of warning about this book: it is incredibly violent and filled with disturbing material. There are several scenes of assault and rape. However, Burgess manages to create a layer of disconnect between these violent acts and the reader through use of the language Alex uses to narrate his story. “Nadsat” is a bizarre hybrid language of English, Russian, and slang. In fact, most readers will find the opening chapters slow going as they try to decipher the meanings of certain words. While there are resources online, I found myself getting the meaning without help after a few chapters. Here’s a small sample just to prepare you:

“There were three devotchkas sitting at the counter all together, but there were four of us malchicks and it was usually like one for all and all for one. These sharps were dressed in the heighth of fashion too, with purple and green and orange wigs on their gullivers, each one not costing less than three or four weeks of those sharps’ wages, I should reckon, and make-up to match (rainbows round the glazzies, that is an the rot painted very wide). “

I promise the language becomes easier with time and context. Another reason Burgess uses the nadsat language is so he can separate the main character from everyone else as someone different. Perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself, is the amount of joy Alex takes in committing these horrible acts. Showing absolutely no genuine remorse for his actions, he is a disturbing portrait of a character. Raised by loving parents with no history of trauma, what makes Alex so frightening is the fact that he hurts others for no apparent reason other than it seems fun. I was impressed with how prophetic A Clockwork Orange was to the present day. Alex and his “droogs” would fit in to our contemporary world quite seamlessly, as we just have to watch ten minutes of the news to see just how many violent acts are committed on a daily basis.

At the center of this work is an interesting question on morality. If a person is forced to be good, does that make them a good person? The experimental treatment that Alex undergoes is  a combination of drugs and classical conditioning called the “Ludovico technique.” While pumped with nausea and fear-inducing drugs, he is forced to watch violent and horrific films in order to create an aversion to harming others. The experiment is a success, and Alex becomes sick at even the mere thought of hurting another life. After being released from prison, the newly-reformed Alex becomes a victim himself. He also can no longer listen to the classical music he enjoys as certain pieces were played during his conditioning. While no longer the abusive monster he once was, is Alex now considered a good person? Does the absence of choice make the treatment wrong?

If you do read A Clockwork Orange, make sure to get a copy that has the final chapter included. The complete work is divided into three acts of seven sections apiece in order to equal 21 chapters. Burgess felt that the number “21” was symbolic of human maturity as the age when a person could make more responsible choices. Interestingly, the final chapter was removed for several years from the American version and never adapted into the Kubrick film. The final chapter makes a significant difference as it brings into play the major themes of the work.

While Burgess may not have suspected that A Clockwork Orange would become his most famous novel, I can understand why it holds that honor. Out of all of the works of dystopian science fiction in existence, it is the one that seems eerily the most relevant to the unfortunate acts that are committed today. It is a thought-provoking study of both human psychology and government interference. Burgess will forever remain an icon of modern literature for the long shadow A Clockwork Orange stretches over the human imagination.

“Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?”

I am counting A Clockwork Orange as a classic novella for the Back to the Classics Challenge. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

26. ‘Death on the Nile’ by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile marks my fourth foray into the work of Agatha Christie and my second one starring the the brilliant Hercule Poirot. In this novel, the detective is on holiday in Egypt when he becomes involved in the affairs of a newly married couple and their stalker. Linnet Doyle, formerly Ridgeway, is a young heiress who has everything: money, beauty, and a new husband that she stole from her former best friend. The jilted fiancee, Jacqueline De Bellefort, now follows the Doyles everywhere they go in an attempt at emotional torture and is waiting for them on their honeymoon cruise down the Nile. However, Jacqueline is not Linnet’s only enemy. The other passengers on the cruise all hold a connection to the heiress in one way or another. As this is a Poirot novel, it is only a matter of time before the only destination for this cruise is murder.

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Agatha Christie never fails to impress me with her meticulous ability to craft a perfect detective story. Death on the Nile is enthralling, combining exceptional plotting with a compelling cast of characters. The tragic love triangle between Linnet, Simon, and Jacqueline serves as a perfect emotional storm as a counter-balance to the peaceful ship languidly moving downstream. Since the first murder does not occur until halfway through the novel, Christie allows plenty of breathing space to not only build tension but to flesh out all of the characters.

Although the love triangle initially drives the story, all of the passengers have something to hide. Linnet’s financial advisor Andrew Pennington happens to be in Egypt on pure coincidence. Ferguson is an anarchist and self-proclaimed believer that the world is better off without certain people. The wealthy and cruel Miss Van Schuyler runs her nurse Miss Bowers and shy companion Cornelia ragged. Tim Allerton and his mother have a very limited income, yet can afford an expensive Egyptian holiday. Trashy novelist Salome Otterbourne divides her time degrading her daughter with masking a dark secret. As if matters weren’t complicated enough, Poirot’s friend Colonel Race arrives seeking another murderer under an assumed identity. Poirot will have to use all of his little gray cells in order to unravel so many complicated plots.

“Fey…a Scotch word…It means the kind of exalted happiness that comes before disaster. You know–it’s too good to be true.”

Based on Christie’s own time in Egypt, this novel stands apart from her other works due to the exotic location. Several early scenes involve exploring the ancient Egyptian landmarks which heighten the sense of dread when combined with the careful development of her characters. Similar to her classic Murder on the Orient Express, it is such a nice change of pace to have a British mystery takes place outside of England.

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, one of the locations from the novel

Another reason I loved this book is for the characterization of Poirot. As an expert on human psychology, the detective attempts to provide counseling to an unhappy young woman threatening to destroy her own life in a pointless quest for revenge. I loved this scene as Poirot pleads with the woman to not open her heart to evil. I took equal enjoyment in the scene where Poirot puts Linnet in her place for hurting her best friend by stealing her fiance. Although he tends to flaunt his superior intelligence, I can’t help but love the little Belgian detective. I also felt sorry for him because he can never seem to have a true vacation.

Death on the Nile is a must-read, a stunning achievement in a career that was already filled with brilliant masterpieces. The plotting is perfectly constructed with plenty of red herrings one comes to expect in an Agatha Christie mystery. The pieces to the puzzle fit together beautifully. As an added bonus, I actually figured out the identity of the murderer! However, I have no plans to quit my day job at this time.

“They conceive a certain theory, and everything has to fit into that theory. If one little fact will not fit it, they throw it aside. But it is always the facts that will not fit in that are significant.”

 

I am counting Death on the Nile as a classic set in Africa for the Back to the Classics Challenge. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

Science Fiction Double Feature

Once again, I’m showing off my love of classic science fiction. This time I’m doing a double review from two of my favorite writers. I’ve reviewed both of these authors many times, and it was a fun experience to check out more of their early works. First on the agenda is a story that could only be penned by the incomparable Philip K. Dick. My second featured title is a futuristic thriller from Robert A. Heinlein full of action and intrigue.

24. Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick

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The protagonist of Time Out of Joint is Ragle Gumm, a middle-aged man who makes his living participating in a bizarre contest called “Where Will the Little Green Aliens Be Next?” for the local newspaper. Ragle lives with his sister Margo Nielson, her husband Vic, and their little boy Sammy. While the Nielsons are your picture-perfect model of a 1950’s family, Ragle is often viewed as a loser because he doesn’t hold a regular job. He has managed to be the unbeaten record-holder for the newspaper quiz, a task that has been a source of increasing strain. While he is not working on the contest, Ragle spends his time coming on to his neighbor’s wife Junie. Although his life could easily be viewed as mediocre, a strange turn of events leads him to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

One afternoon while at the local swimming pool, Ragle witnesses a soft-drink stand fade out of existence to be replaced by a slip of paper with the words “Soft-Drink Stand” written on it. As it turns out, this is not the first time as Ragle has a collection of these mysterious slips of paper. However, this is not the only strange occurrence. In an empty lot known as “the Ruins,” Ragle discovers a phone book with nothing but disconnected numbers as well as a magazine article on a movie actress he has never heard of named Marilyn Monroe. These odd events could never prepare him for the truth.

I thoroughly enjoyed  the story and style of Time Out Of Joint. It is one of the earliest PKD novels to focus on the concept of reality as unreliable, a common theme in his more popular books such as Eye in the Sky. The setting of a traditional 1950’s town works well with the increasing paranoia of the book’s protagonist. Ragle’s predicament reminds me of a certain Jim Carrey movie that I will not reveal as I like to keep a moderately spoiler-free blog. The pacing of the story is near perfection as we slowly receive clues as to what is actual happening. There are several twists and turns which made the psychological aspect of the book highly enjoyable. I also felt like the character of Ragle Gumm was PKD at his most autobiographical, as this person who makes a living in a way that some might find pointless.

Unfortunately, the book loses some of its luster during the final third when the mystery is fully revealed. Unlike later works by PKD, we learn exactly what is happening. Although getting answers to all of my questions was nice, the fun was more in the buildup. The novel tries to raise some important ethical issues, but this was in the final pages so it felt a bit tacked on. Despite these minor gripes, I really enjoyed this book and will continue exploring more works by PKD.

25. Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein

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I decided to return to Heinlein after enjoying his novel Double Star, which I discussed in my Triple Review: Classic Pulp Science Fiction. While the plot of Double Star was ridiculously fun (an actor has to impersonate a powerful political figure), I was impressed with the incredible world-building Heinlein achieves. While I didn’t enjoy Beyond This Horizon quite as much, it does feature some interesting ideas with another over-the-top protagonist.

In the future, Earth is ruled by the science of genetics. Modifications for increased health, wealth, and longevity are so commonplace that the unmodified “control naturals” are a protected minority. Carrying a firearm and dueling are socially accepted ways to maintain order among civilians, and there are specific codes of etiquette for initiating a duel. In fact, this society hinges on the creed that “an armed society is a polite society.” A man can wear certain clothing to designate an unwillingness or inability to duel, but this places him in a lower social status. Earth has become a financial “utopia” meaning that having a job is optional. It seems perfect, but enter our main character.

The plot follows Hamilton Felix, one of the most advanced humans on the planet. Despite possessing superior health and resourcefulness, Hamilton is far from perfect. He lacks eidetic memory, which disqualifies him from Earth’s most valuable occupation, someone who can analyze the sum total of human knowledge for untapped potential. Hamilton struggles to find the meaning of life and finds himself living a bit of an aimless life. Despite this one flaw, the scientific regime would love for this superman to produce offspring, but this is the last thing on his mind. Hamilton ambles his way through life with a fondness for an old-fashioned Colt .45 which he prefers to the standard weapons of the future. I mean you have to admit, having someone from the future walking around with an old-fashioned gun is kind of cool.

Hamilton falls for the sassy Longcourt Phyllis whom the geneticists agree is the most advanced woman, the perfect complement to Hamilton’s superman. A word of warning: this book is incredibly sexist at times. During their first encounter, Hamilton hits her and forces her into kissing him. Despite his arrogant and abusive nature, Longcourt Phyllis ends up falling for him. Apparently Heinlein believed that if you tell a woman over and over again how much they want you, they end up believing it. I had to cringe at those moments as Longcourt Phyllis was portrayed at other times as highly intelligent and just as capable with a gun as Hamilton. As a book written in the 1940’s, it really is incredibly sexist and wrong in so many ways. For example, it is established that traditionally women do not have the same status as men. Longcourt Phyllis is looked at as bizarre as she carries a weapon, something traditionally reserved for men.

Another issue with Beyond this Horizon is that we are given chapters that read like political treatises. I loved several of the sections in regards to genetic engineering, but all the political activity bored me. Hamilton uncovers a nefarious plot by a rebel faction and finds himself thrust into the role as hero. It’s up to this gun-wielding manly man to put down the rebellion and produce super babies with the woman of his dreams. 

I recommend this novel to rabid fans of Heinlein. A much better starting point might be one of his books I’ve reviewed previously, Double Star or Orphans of the Sky. Other readers interested in the more political and sociological strains of early science fiction might also be interested.

“That is what civil war means. In a sense it’s the most idealistic kind of war. The most heroic. It means the most sacrifices, the fewest practical advantages.”-Time Out of Joint

 

Have you read either of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

 

My Favorite Books and Experiences of 2019 (so far)

This has been a fabulous year of reading for me. As I look forward to further literary adventures in 2019, I thought it would be fun to share some of the highlights. Let’s start with my favorite books so far:

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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One of my 2019 challenges is to reread all six of Jane Austen’s main novels. I started my reread with her first published novel, and I cannot express how rewarding that experience was as I love this book. The simple plot, the well-drawn characters, the dazzling wit, and so many other factors made this reread such a delight for me!

Widdershins by Charles de Lint

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One of the world’s greatest fantasy authors, I’ve been in love with the works of Charles de Lint for years. This book, a sequel to The Onion Girlis simply magical. De Lint proves with this one why he is the best at urban fantasy.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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I hate that it took me so long to finally get around to this book. Charlie is a special fifteen-year-old, someone who observes life rather than participates. This book covers a range of disturbing yet true life events. This book is so endearing to me that it belongs on that special top tier of my heart only reserved for literature of true awesomeness. Thank you Stephen Chbosky for helping me to become infinite.

Collected Stories by Gabriel García Márquez

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This has been the year of immersing myself in the works of Gabriel García Márquez as I also finished his memorable novel One Hundred Years of SolitudeNobody writes like Márquez, as he balances realistic drama with magical realism. I highly recommend starting with some of his short fiction before tackling his epic masterpiece.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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I’ve been reading a lot of sci-fi this year, and I loved this Russian classic that served as inspiration for Orwell’s 1984. The writing style sets this book apart from other dystopian fiction I’ve read. Many passages often feel more like poetry rather than prose, with several events that are dreamlike to accentuate the internal struggles occurring with its narrator. If dystopian fiction is your thing, check it out.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde, you have won me over. This little novel is such a masterpiece. The story of a young man who slowly sells his soul, it is beautifully told. Wilde is one of the wittiest authors who ever lived, and there is some really funny dialogue to be found in this dark and twisted tale. I will definitely be checking out more from this author in the future, but his one published novel is a must-read.

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott

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While Little Men fails to reach the same epic status of its well -known predecessor, I actually found it to be a quite charming and lovely little book. The story of a school founded by Jo March and her husband, the characters were all well drawn with some truly nice life lessons to be discovered.

In addition to discovering some new favorite books in 2019, I also posted about several bookish topics. Here are some of my favorite posts of the year:

My Journey Reading Haruki Murakami

Most followers of this blog know how much I love Murakami. In this post, I talk about my early reading experiences with this unique author.

How Mr. Darcy Can Make You A Better Man

The original suave gentleman! Although Darcy came across as an arrogant jerk at the beginning of Pride and Prejudicehe quickly proved himself to possess the qualities every man should have if he wants to capture that special someone. My post discusses how to achieve this goal.

Why Louisa May Alcott Is an Inspiration to Writers

Think you know everything about the author behind Little Women? Over the years, I’ve written extensively about this incredible woman who wore many hats in her life. This post talks about her inspiration to me a s a writer.

Finally, I wanted to share this photo taken at Hemingway’s Island Grill at Pensacola Beach, Florida. I always enjoy visiting my Florida family, and my wonderful wife snapped this photo of me and the man himself. Here’s to more bookish adventures for the remainder of 2019!

Image may contain: Joel Getter, sitting, hat and indoor

What are some of your favorite books and experiences of 2019? Let me know with a comment below!