Why has Shirley Jackson chosen common people for her characters?

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omconnelly eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shirley Jackson is known for her relatable characters in most of her short stories. In the short story "The Lottery," Jackson may be trying to convey a message about scapegoating and its impact on society. As a result, she chooses to set the story in a small town that is purposefully nondescript. 

The story was published in 1948, so the initial description of the town and its inhabitants (about 300 people) is nothing that would make the town seem unusual or out of place. The children are playing while the men discuss work, business, and taxes. The women congregate and gossip. This creates a familiar scene to many readers; a small town that exudes a safe and pristine mood. This is the perfect setting to juxtapose the act of the Lottery in the town. By using juxtaposition, the Lottery's process seems that much more gruesome and cruel. The human sacrificial ritual does not take place in a land far, far away nor is it performed by a brutal society that does not recognize human rights. This is a seemingly "normal" village that just happens to adhere to a brutal tradition. 

As you read and begin to slowly realize that there is a reason why neighboring towns have given up the Lottery, you are horrified by the willingness of the town to sacrifice any of its members - including women and children. The fact that the townspeople are more generic caricatures rather than unusual characters makes the idea of a Lottery plausible. It also illustrates how anyone is capable of following tradition blindly and without real justification. 

When Jackson was asked to explain what her short story means, she didn't have a clear answer. Instead she stated, 

“I suppose, 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 inhumanity in their own lives" (San Francisco Chronicle 1948).

Read the study guide:
The Lottery

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