illustrated portrait of American author Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

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Why did Shirley Jackson choose common people as her characters?

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The Lottery,” which was widely criticized when published in 1948, has become one of the most well-known and admired American stories of the twentieth century. Through this and other stories and through her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson came to occupy a singular place in popular fiction among writers of her generation.

A professional writer who depended on the income from her publications, Jackson was conscious of the elements of popular appeal. Nevertheless, she did not hold back from creating terrifying scenarios and characters. The characters's apparent normalcy at the beginning of a work, which may be revealed to cover up a deep psychological problem, accentuates the fear they strike in the readers.

“The Lottery” somewhat deviates from this pattern, as the author does not present, much less analyze, any mental illness or deviance. Much of the tension in the story derives from the fact that the characters are conducting normal, everyday conversations. They neither experience epiphanies nor reveal any secrets that might help the reader understand why the lottery continues aside from tradition or why none of them stand up to opposite it. The matter-of-fact tone combined with the ordinariness of the characters implies that such an event could happen anywhere, that it could be carried out by anyone. “They” are “we.”

In The Haunting of Hill House, the normalcy of an array of characters underscores the unique role and, in some cases, gifts of each one. The sensitivity of Eleanor Vance to paranormal activities stands in sharp distinction to her quiet, introverted, modest demeanor. Each of the other characters, drawn from various walks of life, has a more notable connection to the otherworldly phenomena, but only Dr. Montague is a trained “ghost hunter.” As the novel progresses, it is the very ordinary Eleanor on whom the house seems to be focusing. The reader is more likely to identify with a reluctant participant in such an expedition and to be more horrified at her apparent inability to escape.

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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).

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