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...
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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....
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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,...
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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...
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''The Lottery'' was published in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II, but Jackson set the story in an indeterminate time and place. Many critics, however, have maintained that Jackson modeled the village after North Bennington, Vermont, where she and her husband lived after their marriage in 1940. After the story was published, some of Jackson's friends and acquaintances also suggested that many of its characters were modeled after people who lived in North Bennington. Jackson herself, who throughout her life said little about the meaning behind or the circumstances surrounding the story, noted: "I hoped by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general humanity in their own lives."
Some critics have suggested that "The Lottery" is representative of the social, political, and cultural climate of the time it was written. In 1948 the world was still trying to confront the brutal realities of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. The Holocaust, in particular, revealed that society is capable of mass genocide if they believe it to be in the name of the common good. Jackson's husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, once wrote about the influence of world events on Jackson's fiction: "Her fierce visions of dissociations and madness, of alienation and withdrawal, of cruelty and terror, have been taken to be...
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Jackson establishes the setting of "The Lottery'' at the beginning of the story. It takes place on the morning of June 27th, a sunny and pleasant summer day, in the village square of a town of about three hundred people. The setting is described as tranquil and peaceful, with children playing and adults talking about everyday concerns. This seemingly normal and happy setting contrasts greatly with the brutal reality of the lottery. Few clues are given to a specific time and place in the story, a technique used to emphasize the fact that such brutality can take place in any time or in any place.
Jackson's narrative technique, the way she recounts the events in the story, is often described as detached and objective. Told from a third-person point of view, the narrator is not a participant in the story. The objective tone of the narrative, meaning the story is told without excessive emotionalism or description, helps to impart the ordinariness of the barbaric act.
Jackson uses symbolism, a literary technique in which an object, person, or concept represents something else, throughout ''The Lottery.'' For example, the story takes place on June 27, near the summer solstice, one of the two days in a year when the earth is farthest from the sun. Many prehistoric rituals took place on the summer solstice, so by setting the lottery at this time, Jackson draws similarities to such...
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Compare and Contrast
1948: A Hollywood blacklist is compiled in 1947 and several figures in the entertainment industry are accused of being Communists.
Today: Although all U. S. citizens are able to freely choose their political affiliations, few deviate from major political party lines. Ross Perot and the Labor Reform Party only garnered 8.5 percent of the vote in the 1996 presidential election according to an ABC news report.
1948: The Soviet Union occupies East Germany and blocks traffic between West Germany and Berlin.
Today: The Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961, falls in 1989; East and West Germany reunite in 1990.
1948: Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger founds the International Planned Parenthood Federation, ushering in an era in which women are able to take more control over their own bodies.
Today: Birth control methods such as oral contraceptives and the Norplant implant are legal and widely used in the United States.
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Topics for Further Study
Relate ''The Lottery'' to psychological explanations of scapegoatism.
Discuss the significance of Tessie Hutchinson as victim from a feminist perspective.
Research the 1692 witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, and compare the events surrounding them to those in "The Lottery."
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"The Lottery'' was recorded by Shirley Jackson for Folkway Records in 1963.
The Lottery and Other Stories was recorded by actress Maureen Stapleton for Caedmon in 1976.
A dramatization of "The Lottery" was videotaped by Encyclopedia Britannica Education Corporation in 1969. Also available is a videotaped discussion of the story by James Durbin. Both are available from Britannica Films.
The Lottery was filmed by the Landsburg Company/Picture Entertainment and aired on NBC in September, 1996. The movie was written by Anthony Spinner, directed by Daniel Sackheim, and starred Dan Cortese, Veronica Cartwright, and M. Emmet Walsh.
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What Do I Read Next?
The short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin was published in her 1975 collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters. It focuses on the city of Omelas, whose citizens must decide how high a price they are willing to pay for happiness.
Irish writer Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" was first published in 1729. In it he uses satire to propose a horrifying solution, cannibalism, to the problem of hunger that existed in Ireland at that time.
Elias Canetti's nonfiction work Crowds and Power (1962) examines the origins, behavior, and significance of crowds as forces in society.
The Crucible (1953) by Arthur Miller is a fictionalized dramatization of the hysteria that led to the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, during which twenty people were killed for being witches.
James Frazer's 1890 nonfiction work The Golden Bough is a collection of anthropological information on folklore, myth, and ritual, in which he examines the basis for human social behavior.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. "Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery,'" in Understanding Fiction, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959, pp. 72-6.
Cleveland, Carol. "Shirley Jackson," in And Then There Were Nine ... More Women of Mystery, edited by Jane S. Bakerman, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985, pp. 199-219.
Heilman, Robert B. "Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery': Comment," in Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology, Harcourt, Brace, 1950, pp. 384-85.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar. "Shirley Jackson. 1919-1965," Saturday Evening Post, no. 25, December 18, 1965, p. 63.
Kosenko, Peter. "A Marxist/Feminist Reading of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" New Orleans Review, Vol. 12, no. 1, Spring 1985, pp. 27-32.
Nebeker, Helen E. '"The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force," American Literature, Vol. 46, no. 1, March 1974, pp. 100-07.
Allen, Barbara. "A Folkloristic Look at Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, Vol. XLVI, no. 4, December 1980, pp. 119-24.
Allen analyzes the elements of folklore and ritual in "The Lottery," contending that Jackson successfully uses them to reveal various kinds of social behavior.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 60, Gale Research, 1990, pp. 209-238.
Collection of previously published criticism on Jackson'...
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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 reevaluation of her work, especially by feminist critics.
Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne, 1975. The best introduction to Jackson’s life and work. Chapter 2, “The Short Stories,” is divided into fifteen subsections, surveying some three dozen of the stories, including most of those in The Lottery, under such headings as “Fantasy,” “Social Evil,” and “Use of Irony.” Friedman’s comments are necessarily fairly brief—a story may be covered in three pages or, more often, in three sentences—but generally insightful. Includes bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, the latter annotated.
Nebeker, Helen E. “‘The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour...
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