Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
A first-time reader of “The Lottery” often finds the ending a surprise. The festive nature of the gathering and the camaraderie of the townspeople as the lottery is conducted belie the horror that occurs at the conclusion of the tale. That is one of the tale’s strongest points. Another strength, however, is the skillful way in which Jackson prepares the careful reader for the denouement by including key details so that, on a second reading, one is assured that there is no trick being played on the reader.
Jackson is able to keep the reader off guard by making use of an objective, third-person narrative style in which details are presented but no judgments are made. It is almost as if one is seeing a film or observing events by looking over the shoulders of the participants, without being able to see into the minds of the people. Any hints of inner turmoil are merely suggested by the actions of the characters: a nervous lilt of the voice, a shuffling of feet, a whisper when normal speech would be appropriate. On the other hand, the description of outward actions and physical setting is direct and, when viewed in retrospect, contributes directly to the macabre climax toward which the story moves. The story opens with a scene of small children gathering stones. Townspeople remark about the absence of certain people. These are chilling foreshadowings of what is to come.
Jackson also makes use of symbolic names to give her story universal significance. “Summers” suggests the association with fertility rites. “Graves” signifies the notion of death that runs through the tale. “Warner” characterizes the voice of the past, warning the citizens of the town that breaking with tradition will have dire consequences. The roll call of townspeople goes through the alphabet—Adams to Zanini. Finally, the choice of New England as a setting will suggest to those familiar with history the notion of witchcraft, for which almost two dozen people were put to death in 1692. These and other details help raise “The Lottery” from a simple tale of terror to a study of a universal human problem that persists in all times in one form or another.
The Lottery (Magill Book Reviews)
This story is probably one of the best-known in 20th century American literature--not necessarily because it is philosophically profound or artistically excellent, but because its conclusion catches the reader unaware and horrifies him or her with its barbarity.
At first, one expects the usual convention of a lottery--that someone will win a desirable prize. However, as the reader progresses into the story, ominous details suggest that more is at stake. When Tessie Hutchinson draws the unlucky token and objects that “It wasn’t fair,” the townspeople urge her to be a good sport and accept her prize. All the townspeople join in the stoning, even her own children.
The basic social theme focuses on how people often hold on to customs, even when they are barbaric and have lost their earlier meaning. The idea of the lottery itself refers back to a primitive fertility custom of scapegoating; that is, choosing one member of the community to be sacrificed to appease the gods and assure a good crop.
What makes the story so disturbing is that it does not take place in a primitive society in the distant past but rather in America in the 20th century. Moreover, instead of being written as if it were a parable of man’s primitive nature, it is presented realistically as if it were actually taking place. When “THE LOTTERY” was first published, many readers wrote to Jackson demanding to know where such horrors were being tolerated.
Allen, Barbara. “A Folkloristic Look at Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’” Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 46, no. 4 (December, 1980): 119-124. Discusses the use of folklore in the story, not as the static incorporation of...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Lottery: Or, The Adventures of James Harris is the only collection of Shirley Jackson’s short stories published during her lifetime. The twenty-five stories are divided into four numbered sections by extracts from Sadducismus Triumphatus, Joseph Glanvil’s seventeenth century defense of witchcraft, and followed by a fifth numbered section, an “Epilogue” presenting the last seven stanzas of the ballad “James Harris, The Daemon Lover.” Although different characters named Harris do appear in several of the stories, critics have been unable to find any real point to their presence, or to the subtitle of the book, the extracts from Glanvil, and the epilogue, other than creating a sort of generally mysterious tone for the book or perhaps capitalizing for commercial purposes on Jackson’s “witchlike” public image; she did have a strong interest in witchcraft and would even write a children’s book on the subject, Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956). Critics thus far, at any rate, have simply treated the collection as a mixed bag of early short stories, arranged in no particular order.
Despite the collection’s apparent lack of formal unity, however, the stories share a number of thematic and stylistic elements. Most are very short, describing in simple, straightforward prose a small cast of ordinary characters engaged in apparently mundane pursuits. All but a handful of the stories have women as protagonists, usually, but not always, in domestic settings of home or neighborhood. The typical Jackson story will introduce the characters, depict enough representative activity for the reader to picture clearly their normal...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Jackson achieved both popular and critical success during her lifetime, but apart from the phenomenally well known “The Lottery,” her work has received little serious attention since her death. Lynette Carpenter has speculated that “the reasons for this neglect are also the reasons for the reevaluation of Shirley Jackson by feminist critics”; she argues that traditional critics dismissed Jackson’s work because she specialized in genres that were not considered suitable for serious fiction, especially gothic novels, humorous writing, and domestic sketches. More recent critics have begun to explore the thematic depth underlying Jackson’s sketches, which are ostensibly concerned with what critic Anne LeCroy has called “the paraphernalia of living” but which can be seen with hindsight to challenge all the conservative dogma about women’s roles current in the late 1940’s. Jackson’s women are torn between the relative security of traditional domestic roles, with their demand of complete self-abnegation, and the flight to personal freedom, with its apparently inevitable consequence of the disintegration of the old sense of identity. Her stories offer no easy solution to the dilemma, but pose it in a variety of humorous and/or horrifying terms. As Richard Pascal has remarked, “What seems to fascinate Shirley Jackson most is the possibility that behind the self which we ordinarily assume to be irrevocably ingrained, if not preordained, there is nothing immutably necessary which we can call our own; it is, for her, an idea which is both frightening and alluring.”
Although these issues are of central importance to women’s literature, they are also significant for all human beings. As critic Donna Burrell has observed, Jackson “explored not only the division of the community’s tasks, but also the network of roles available to each gender, the justification, if any, for these divisions, and the problems which occur if a person of either gender does not fit his or her role.” Jackson’s view of human nature is essentially a pessimistic one—none of her stories offers anything like a traditional happy ending for her characters—but also a challenging and fascinating one, dramatizing the tension inherent in the effort to maintain both an individual and a social identity in a series of striking psychological parables.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Allen, Barbara. “A Folkloristic Look at Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’” Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 46, no. 4 (December, 1980): 119-124. Discusses the use of folklore in the story, not as the static incorporation of folkloric items into the plot, but rather as a representation of folkloric performance or behavior.
Carpenter, Lynette. “Domestic Comedy, Black Comedy, and Real Life: Shirley Jackson, Woman Writer.” In Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Discusses the reasons for Jackson’s critical neglect and the need for a...
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