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Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” depends, for its effectiveness, on the ironic contrast between its appealing tone and its brutal conclusion. The ending catches us by surprise precisely because very little in the story has openly foreshadowed such an ugly and shocking end. The story would have very little power if the gruesomeness of the ending had been suggested right from the start. Imagine, for instance, how uninspired the story would seem if its opening paragraph read as follows:
The grim morning of December 27th was overcast and dark, with the biting coldness of a freezing winter day; the dead stalks of long-dead flowers had long since been trampled, and the grass was as brown as dust. The humorless people of the village, gripping large rocks and looking angry and bitter, swarmed belligerently into the blood-stained square, between the post office and the bank – the exact spot where the victims of the ironically named “lottery” were usually stoned. In some towns there were so many people lining up to throw rocks that the so-called “lottery” took two days and had to be started on December 26th. But in this village, where there were only about three hundred people (and one less, thanks to the deadly lottery, each year), the whole lottery took less than two hours. In this town, just one pitiful victim was needed, and it didn’t matter at all whether that victim was a man, a woman, or even a helpless child. Thus the bloody “lottery” could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the mob of villagers to get home for noon dinner, untroubled by their dull and undeveloped consciences.
An opening such as this would telegraph all the important events of the story. It would let the reader know precisely what to think and how to react and would allow the reader to predict exactly what was about to happen. There would be no suspense and no irony; there would be no shock and no immediate desire to read the story again to see how Jackson had “set us up.” Indeed, Jackson would not have “set us up” at all; she would have conveyed her obvious messages with all the subtlety of a brass band. Jackson clearly knew what she was doing by phrasing and structuring the story as she did.
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