Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

When "The Lottery" was first published in The New Yorker on June 26, 1948, it generated more mail than any other story published in the magazine up until that time. According to Jackson, three main themes dominated the letters: "bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse." Since then, critical opinion has been both ambivalent and diverse, with critics agreeing only that the story's meaning cannot be determined with exactitude. Early reviewers such as Heilman praised the emotional impact of the story's ending but suggested that Jackson took liberties with plot by suddenly interjecting into a seemingly ordinary environment the horrifying reality of the lottery. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren also suggested unease with the story's structure when they wrote in Understanding Fiction that Jackson ''has preferred to give no key to her parable but to leave its meaning to our inference." Despite such comments, however, these critics applauded Jackson's focus on scapegoatism, victimization, and other themes relevant to contemporary society. Helen E. Nebeker summed up the ambivalence evident in early criticism when she wrote in American Literature in 1974 that "beneath the praise of these critics frequently runs a current of uneasiness, a sense of having been defrauded in some way by the development of the story as a whole."

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While critics continued to concede that it was Jackson's intention to avoid specific meaning in "The Lottery," some nonetheless faulted what they considered the story's flatly drawn characters, unrevealing dialogue, and detached narrative style. They contended that because Jackson did not provide many details about the villagers, readers are unable to identify with or feel emotionally attached to the characters. Others, however, argued that "The Lottery" is a modern-day parable, a story intended to teach a lesson, and that the qualities disparaged by some critics are consistent with that type of literature.

More recent critics have commented on the relationships between men and women in the story. Fritz Oehlschlaeger, for example, stated in Essays in Literature that the story is a "depiction of a patriarchal society's way of controlling female sexuality." Others have read it from a Marxist perspective in which the consequences of class stratification are a primary focus. These critics have suggested that such village officials as Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves represent the upper class because of their power and money, while such characters as Bill Hutchinson and Mr. Adams represent the working class. Writing in The New Orleans Review, Peter Kosenko stated that "the lottery's rules of participation reflect and codify a rigid social hierarchy based upon an inequitable division of labor." "The Lottery" has also been read as a psychological horror story because of its focus on the willingness of people to engage collectively in abhorrent behavior. Although critical opinion continues to be mixed, "The Lottery" remains one of the most widely anthologized short stories of the modern era. The majority of commentators argue that because of its parable-like structure, Jackson is able to address a variety of timeless issues with contemporary meaning, thereby stirring her readers to reflective thought and debate.

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