Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

Shirley Jackson is best known for her frequently anthologized short story “The Lottery,” in which a typical small town stones one person each year as part of a ritual based on reasons no one remembers. Critics analyze this story in terms of Marxist, feminist, and other literary theories, finding in it a chilling depiction of human behavior, which one can see as well in her less known stories, including “Charles.” Critics also note that Jackson’s stories usually concern children rather than adults and female characters more often than male. According to some biographers, this might result from Jackson’s problematic relationship with her own mother, who was insensitive to her daughter’s personality, tried to control her, and often criticized her for being overweight. From this point of view, feminist critics examine mother–daughter relationships (usually shaped by a male-dominated society) in Jackson’s stories to understand how these affect the behavior of the female protagonist.

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Because the possibilities of madness and evil are recurring themes in Jackson’s work, it is frequently categorized as gothic—not in the sense of haunted castles and closets with skeletons but in terms of the human psyche, which has crevices that can hide evil, often in the form of narcissism that causes a breakdown of self, community, and family relationships.

Despite having received numerous awards during her lifetime, Shirley Jackson is not considered a great American writer by some critics, in part because she wrote for the purpose of entertaining her audience rather than elucidating complex philosophy. Critics frequently say she is a storyteller more than a philosopher, an entertainer more than an intellectual. According to Lenemaja Friedman (1975), Jackson “has insights to share with her readers; but her handling of the material—the surprise twists, the preoccupation with mystery and fantasy, her avoidance of strong passions, her versatility, and her sense of sheer fun—may not be the attributes of the more serious writer who wishes to come to grips with the strong passions of ordinary people in a workaday world, who prefers to deal directly with the essential problems of love, death, war, disease, poverty, and insanity in its most ugly aspects.”

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