Shirley Jackson, The lottery (#Review)

As a lover of short stories, I have wanted to read Shirley Jackson’s “The lottery” for some time. With Kate selecting it as October’s Six Degrees starting work, now seemed the perfect time!

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) pops up on blogosphere with some consistency, and is clearly well-regarded. Her career spanned two decades and, during that time, as the thorough Wikipedia article says, she wrote six novels, two memoirs, and more than 200 short stories. Her debut novel, The road through the wall, and “The lottery”, were both published in 1948, though she had had short stories published over the preceding decade.

It was “The lottery”, however, which established her reputation – particularly as a master of horror stories. Wikipedia says it resulted in over 300 letters from readers, many “outraged at its conjuring of a dark aspect of human nature”. In the San Francisco Chronicle of July 22, 1948, Jackson responded to persistent queries from her readers about her intentions:

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. 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.”

Many of you probably know the story, but, just in case, I’m not going to “spoil” it beyond that. I will, however, make a few comments.

I’ll start with Wikipedia’s succinct synopsis: it is about ‘a fictional small town which observes an annual rite known as “the lottery”, in which a member of the community is selected by chance’. It’s a great read, because the build-up is so good and the ending so powerful. If you were not forewarned, you’d have no idea you were reading a “horror” story, because there’s nothing Gothic about the setting, no eeriness, no overt build up of fear even. Instead, there’s the coming together of this village’s 300 people coming for this annual event. It’s summer, “the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green”. Idyllic, in other words, or, so we are set up to see it is (or, could be?)

The children are described, then the men and women. It all seems benign, though there are tiny hints of something else, that you may not notice if you’re not expecting it. The emcee of “the lottery” is the ironically named Mr. Summers, who has the “time and energy to devote to civic [my emph] duties”. Many of the names in the story sound normal, but they also carry symbolic weight – Graves, Adams, Delacroix (pointedly, as it turns out, perverted to Dellacroy by the townspeople).

Anyhow, there is a long discussion of the “black box” that is used for the lottery, but, although it is “black”, it sounds quaint and unimportant. No great care is taken of it between lotteries. There’s a bit of camaraderie and joking between the townspeople; there’s confirmation of the formalities; but, slowly tension builds. Mr Summers and the first man to draw from the black box, grin at each other “humorlessly and nervously”. We are now half way through the story, and there’s nervousness among the attendees.

Then, plopped in here, is a little discussion about some villages – because this is not just this village’s tradition – having given up, or talking of giving up, the lottery. However, Old Man Warner (another interesting name), who has been through 77 lotteries, doesn’t approve of change. He sees “nothing but trouble in that”. When you know the end, you wonder what sort of person he is! Certainly not the archetypal dear old man, grandpa to everyone! Meanwhile, anxiety slowly builds, with another townsperson saying to her son, “I wish they’d hurry”.

The “winner”, when identified, doesn’t behave like a winner, which provides another dark hint, but which causes our aforementioned Old Man Warner to pronounce that “people ain’t the way they used to be”.

The final line of the story is shocking, but by then you have worked out what winning means, so it adds an extra layer to the story’s meaning (as you’d expect in a good short story).

You can find in Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the web, all sorts of critical reactions and theories about what it means, but I’d like to return to Jackson’s comment that she intended a “graphic dramatisation of the pointless violence and general inhumanity“. Why do the townspeople accept “the lottery”? What makes some villages give up the ritual and others not? Why do some in this town act with relish and others not? It recalls, for me, Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap. Yes, it’s a novel and a very different story, but I saw it as being fundamentally about the violence that seems to be be lying too near the surface of our so-called civilised society. I’ll leave it at that, but it makes me think, plus ça change.

Image credit: Shirley Jackson, New York City. 1940s. Contact: Low resolution version from Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Shirley Jackson
“The lottery”
First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1948

Avalailable online at The New Yorker.

44 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson, The lottery (#Review)

  1. Great review! I didn’t read it but I read other reviews and spoilers for it. I can see why it’s received so many accolades and why people have been shocked by it. It’s had such a lasting impact, and the questions it poses is still so relevant.

  2. I’m not sure I’ve read this one because, even though the title and author are familiar to me, I can’t remember the plot. Then again, my memory for plots is pretty vague anyway; I have clearer recollections of how pieces of literature make me feel.
    I daren’t read your spoilers now because I want to go back to the text and remind myself of it, or else have it fresh. But the Shirley Jackson story I DO remember is “After You, My Dear Alphonse.” It’s quite a subtle story about how children are exposed to racism and patronage from a young age.

  3. I have read two of her novels. I came across her in my FIRST job out of school, working as a library assistant in Fremantle. I read “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Sundial” – I don’t know why I didn’t read more, because I sort of loved them ! 😀

    • Oh thanks M-R. I really hadn’t heard of her until a few years ago, maybe because I don’t read horror or ghost stories? Anyhow, sounds like she’s someone for you to search on audible so you can read others now?

    • She’s clearly someone I need to get to know more Carmel. I have known that for a little while, but the people coming out now who really like her is convincing me of the fact. What made you re-read her all of a sudden?

  4. I’m a big fan of ‘The Lottery’ because it it’s such clever gothic, and partly because it’s the kind of short story that was easy to teach: once the students got a sniff of its horror, they actually read it and wanted to talk about it (a low bar, I know!).
    There’s a great movie about Shirley Jackson called ‘Shirley’ with Elisabeth Moss as Shirley. I think I watched it on Netflix but it’s not streaming there now. It’s worth tracking down, though.

    • Thanks Robyn. I can certainly see that it’s a story that would be great to discuss in class. Any bar is good I think if it gets people talking about ideas in writing!

      Elizabeth Moss as Shirley? That sounds great. I hadn’t heard of that.

  5. Basically everything you want in a short story – powerful, gripping, loads to think about. It WILL NOT leave my mind! (look forward to your links tomorrow!).

  6. I haven’t heard of her – the library here has The Haunitng of Hill House so I’ll try that. She sounds interesting! I’m also relived to hear I’m not the only one who has trouble remembering plots – I’m like you I think Sue, I remember how the book affected me, whether I enjoyed it, found it humourous, but never remember the plots particularly clearly. I was worried it was just e!

    • Oh phew Sue, I hadn’t heard of until early in my blogging life. I had been starting to think that I was the only one. Seems like you and I have a few things in common (besides our names and going to high school in a similar part of Sydney).

  7. While I;m here – does anyone know what happened to dovegreyreader scribbles in the UK? I can’ t find her blog any more, I haven’t looked for it in ages. What happened to her, or is the problem at my end?

    • Ah, interesting Sue. I did check her out a year or so ago, but haven’t since Covid. If you can’t find her blog that’s a bit of a worry. Hmm… it does look like she’s disappeared. I hope she’s well. And I hope someone can tell us.

      • I saw someone else post on the internet they couldn’t find her Sue. I wonder what’s happened. I used to enjoy her blog! Maybe someone reading here might know?

        • Let’s hope so, Sue. I read her blog occasionally but often just didn’t have time. However, I did like what I read very much. It was a lovely, friendly blog, but intelligent too.

        • Is either of you friendly with Simon at Stuck in a Book? I believe that he and she (and I) were in the same online discussion group dedicated to the Persephone (and Virago) classics by women writers and that she and he remained in touch after that group was dismantled (a technical thing, nothing dramatic Heheh). If you’re not in touch, but would like me to check/ask, LMK, Whispering, backchannel (now that does sound dramatic).

  8. Someone told me that I judged this too harshly, and that I felt it was a bit too obvious. They said that the tropes in this story have been used so much since, that that’s why I felt that way. Possibly true… It was a good story, but it didn’t blow me away. But a good start for our #6Degrees.

    • Have you written it up too, Davida? If so, I’ll come and look at that as well. I’ve been really busy today. But it sounds like a good reminder to always be aware of context when reviewing? Which is not to say you can’t say that it doesn’t work for you any more – and why.

      But, I loved all the little details in it and can imagine spending a long time discussing them and what they mean.

  9. I love how EVERYTHING about Shirley Jackson is dark. I have several works by her (and one about her) on my blog, so if you’re interested, you can use the search box on my site. Her memoirs are more funny, though they were written in articles for women’s magazines of the day and cleaned up quite a bit, which makes it all the darker when you read her biography.

    I just heard on the radio this morning that the FBI is now attending some school board meetings in the U.S. because it has become common for parents to threaten the lives of board members. Jackson’s quote above made me think there is a similarity.

    Have you read “The Monkey’s Paw”? It’s a short story widely available online and is a cousin to “The Lottery.” I love it.

    • Haha, of course you do Melanie! Why am I not surprised? It is now 1.15am and I am going to bed, but I will try to check out your blog tomorrow. I have a few other blogs to check out too, so it’s going to be a priority.

      That’s terrible about school board meetings and the FBI.

  10. I read this ages ago when I did a unit on writing short stories. We had a ‘brick’ of short stories to read to illustrate the diversity and the craft. This is one of the few that I actually remember!

  11. Would it be too reductive to remind us that ‘The Lottery’ appeared at the onset of the House UnAmerican Activities investigations and the scourge of McCarthyism? It was read on the radio at the time – a kid then, I remember so well listening to it in our living room. Everyone knew what it was about and it was all the more chilling for that.

    On a par with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

    • Thanks very much Sara. I heard that it might have been linked to McCarthyism and it certainly makes sense as a response to that sort of thinking. I did read The crucible at school but had never read this. It says something about these works, doesn’t it, that they can speak to their time and to other times just as powerfully. Do no, not too reductive… Adds to the richness I think.

  12. Ohhh, I just love this story. Sometimes I question the use of the term ‘timeless’; it fits here perfectly. Her novels are all short and smart like this too, if you’re curious about more. And there’s been a collection of letters published this year that is very tempting…

      • I think most people would suggest The Haunting of Hill House and I love that one too. But the first one that I read was We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She’d be one you could count on, if you want to read something seasonally creepy, without all the usual trappings that typically involves, and in a very short, tight narrative structure that ultimately is more “unsettling” than “haunting”. I’m tempted to recommend her memoirs (1950s housewife and mother, but not quite) but I’ve only read essays and not the full memoirs (they have become more widely available than they were when my interest was piqued) and I recall that Melanie GtL, in particular, didn’t enjoy the booklength memoirs very much.

  13. I haven’t read anything by Shirley Jackson, but you’ve made me curious about this one. I think I can guess the twist, though. Maybe in these days, where most people are familiar with the plot in The Hunger Games, the ending isn’t quite as shocking?

    • Haha Stargazer. I haven’t read or watched The Hunger Games, but you are probably right, though I think, from what I know, that “The lottery” is different enough to still be pretty shocking.

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