Donna Burrell has labeled Jackson’s method of analysis the “folklore of the modern suburb,” noting that Jackson is “concerned with representing particular societies or community systems, not simply a few of the members. To some degree the system is the protagonist; many of the events seem included merely to illustrate the interactions of the elements, and even the rules of the interactions.” As a result, Jackson’s characters are usually flat rather than round, developed only as much as is necessary to establish their position in the social system of the story.
“The Lottery,” Jackson’s most famous story, has been anthologized to a degree that makes it one of the few stories that one can assume nearly every American student has read. Jackson’s calm description of the lottery procedure—the reader is given more commonplace details about the workings of the lottery than about any of the characters—helps counterpoint the horror of the final ritual that the story leaves to the reader’s imagination. As Barbara Allen puts it, “The point of ‘The Lottery’ is that blind adherence to traditional forms of behavior that have lost their original meanings and acquired no new, positive ones, can be destructive.” A number of specific targets have been suggested for Jackson’s story, including American society’s obsession with finding scapegoats during the years of the Cold War and the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunts. The remarkable openness of the story, however, seems to make it an attack on all forms of destructive social behavior, and Jackson was particularly proud when the then-apartheid-based South African government banned the story. Almost all Jackson’s tales make the same point in one way or another, describing traditional forms of behavior that either lose their meaning for the protagonist or come into conflict with and, almost invariably, succeed in suppressing the protagonist’s personal impulses.
“Flower Garden,” one of Jackson’s finest and most fully developed stories, narrates the arrival of a new family, the MacLanes—a young widow and her small son—into a neighborhood from the point of view of Mrs. Winning (note again the ironically emblematic name), who has married into the oldest and richest family in the neighborhood and lives with her husband and children in the family house, under the rule of her husband’s parents, especially her mother-in-law, who is an inflexible and repressive domestic tyrant. The MacLanes move into the small cottage down the street that Mrs. Winning had always wished that she and her husband could have lived in, and her increasingly frequent visits to the cottage suggest that she is vicariously living out many of her own dreams of independence through Mrs. MacLane—perhaps the absence of a husband is one of those fantasies. The growing friendship between the two women is abruptly ended when Mrs. MacLane hires a black man to work in her flower garden and invites his son over to play with hers. Mrs. Winning, who has been set up as a sympathetic character by Jackson’s shrewd decision to tell the story from her point of view, represses her own personal affection for the family and takes her place in the neighborhood system as a true heir to the elder Mrs. Winning, treating the MacLanes as social outcasts.
A final permutation on the conflict between social systems and individual impulses is represented by “The Tooth.” Clara Spencer’s toothache forces her to take a bus to New York City to see a dentist, leaving her husband and children for a day or two. As in other stories, the small town and family she leaves represent a familiar and ordered world, but also repression and self-denial, while the city offers the possibility of personal freedom at the risk of becoming uprooted (like the symbolic tooth) and losing touch with reality. A similar character in “Pillar of Salt” observes with terror, and eventually succumbs to, the phenomenon of “People starting to come apart” in the city; by the end of her story, Clara Spencer abandons her social role and slips into a fantasy world with a mysterious stranger named Jim (Harris, one assumes). As Richard Pascal explains in his insightful reading of “The Tooth,” “the sin of feeling solipsistically happy and free, it might seem, is punished by the damnation of madness.”