Summer reading: Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery”

Shirley Jackson
The Lottery

Read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a parable first published in the New Yorker magazine in 1948, today and you’re left wondering why this particular story has achieved canonical literary status and appears in so many American short story collections. The story’s premise seems like something out of a middling “Twilight Zone” episode (although Rod Serling would have insisted on a much more intriguing ending) and Jackson’s Gothic New England village is nowhere near as chilling or dark or convincingly evil as the settings of Stephen King’s horror stories.

Jackson does fashion an intriguing and jarring plot: on a sunny June day the residents of a small New England village gather in the town square for their annual lottery. The catch: the “winner” of this strange rite is to be stoned to death, a ritual sacrifice that is said to insure an ample harvest. The people of the village accept the deadly lottery as necessary—we learn that it is common throughout the region—drawing paper slips from a wooden black box until the unlucky one marked with a black spot is drawn. The story centers on one somewhat unlikeable villager, Tessie Hutchinson, and her fate as the victim of this macabre tradition. That, more or less, is it—Jackson doesn’t bother to develop her characters at any length; she banks on her narrative to provide the necessary suspense to engage the reader.

So what accounts for the story’s inflated reputation?

The popularity of “The Lottery” in academic literary circles stems in large part, I would argue, from its initial hostile reception. Readers puzzled and confused by its contemporary setting and disturbed by what they saw as Jackson’s assault on American small town life bombarded the New Yorker with critical letters and phone calls. And what better way to convince English professors and literary critics that you’ve produced great art than to draw fire from outraged (if befuddled) middle class readers? (If the Reader’s Digest crowd hates it, the story has to have literary merit!)

When the South African apartheid government decided to ban “The Lottery,” it further validated the story’s bona fides as a significant literary accomplishment, an allegory about conformity and violence feared by authority. Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson’s husband, wrote about her reaction to the South African ban: “She felt that they at least understood.”

Perhaps. Or it could be that they—the Boer censors—did not completely understand “The Lottery,” and simply banned it to be safe–why take any chances with potentially subversive literature? After all, even the legendary Harold Ross of the New Yorker didn’t claim to understand the story when he published it. And literary critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, who admired the story, acknowledged that some readers might find Jackson’s strange tale “vague and fuzzy,” but argued that a “general meaning emerged.”

“The story comments upon the all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat and to visit upon the scapegoat the cruelties that most of us seem to have dammed up within us,” Brooks and Warren wrote in their Understanding Fiction. They maintained that the story’s “web of observations about human nature is too subtle and too complex to be stated in one or two brief maxims.” Again, perhaps, but isn’t an allegory supposed to be coherent? While ambiguity has its place in literature, it’s annoying when an author asks you to suspend belief (a ritual sacrifice in modern America) and leaves you grasping at exactly what is going on.

Muddled lessons?

Jackson agreed that explaining “The Lottery” was “very difficult,” and later wrote: “I supposed, 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.”

The shock value, of course, came from placing her tale in a present-day New England village (modelled on her own hometown of Bennington, Vermont). The suggestion that somehow “pointless violence” could lurk in Norman Rockwell territory did offend many readers (Jackson reported that the Bennington postmaster stopped talking to her) and caused some schools and libraries to ban it.

In retrospect, the public fuss raised over “The Lottery” in 1948 seems silly. After the horrors of World War II, it’s hard to believe that Jackson’s contrived story shocked anyone. The millions of Americans who had fought in World War II and had experienced first-hand “general inhumanity” hardly needed a parable to alert them to the presence of evil in the world. None of the other “lessons” in Jackson’s tale are particularly novel or arresting. What do we learn? That small towns can operate in cruel and arbitrary ways? That we will do things in a crowd we would never do as individuals? That tradition and superstition can lead us astray? That humans can be quite violent? This is shocking?

Because of its muddled triteness, “The Lottery” shouldn’t appear on any list of memorable American short fiction of the 20th century; if an allegorical story is included, Ursula K. Le Guin’s thought-provoking “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is much more deserving (and much better written). Yet it’s likely that “The Lottery” will remain in short story anthologies and on high school and college English reading lists for the forseeable future—proving, I guess, that perception can trump reality in literature as well as in life.

This is the third in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for 2007.

From Summer 2007:

Katherine Mansfield and “The Garden Party”

Anton Chekhov and “The Lady with the Pet Dog”

(You can find some of my own short fiction here.)


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Summer reading: Anton Chekhov and “The Lady with the Pet Dog”

I have come to appreciate Anton Chekhov’s stories more as I move deeper into middle age. Chekhov’s fiction explores the quiet drama in the lives of ordinary people, and the prolific Russian author often concludes his stories without much of a clear-cut resolution, something I found off-putting when I was younger but now, with the benefit of life-experience, recognize as closer to reality than the tidy and clever concluding epiphanies offered by more conventional writers.

Continue reading “Anton Chekhov and ‘The Lady with the Pet Dog'”…

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Summer reading: Katherine Mansfield and “The Garden Party”

Americans don’t pay much attention to social class. Most of us think of ourselves as middle class, especially the “self-made” with their considerable wealth, and we’ve proved relatively resistant to the class envy found in other societies. It’s different for those who remained part of the British Empire for a longer period of time than did American colonials, because they seem to have inherited that particularly English obsession with relative social standing.

Continue reading “Katherine Mansfield and ‘The Garden Party'”…

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Summer reading: Joseph Conrad and “The Secret Sharer”

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” is usually grouped with his other sea stories for critical consideration, but the nautical setting is incidental—it is the “conflict within” that fascinated the Polish-English writer, a reflection, we can conjecture, of Conrad’s own identification as a homo duplex—a “double man.”

English was Conrad’s second language, and he acknowledged his own dual loyalties when he told a British friend in 1903: “Both at sea and on land, my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.”

The immigrant Conrad struggled with this dual national identity, balancing two cultures and allegiances, knowing that he would always be considered somewhat less than truly English. Conrad understood full well the potential for alienation and conflict that such a straddling act could produce.

“The Secret Sharer,” published in 1911 in Harper’s Magazine, was, according to Conrad, based on both his own experiences as a young captain and on the highly publicized murder of a sailor on the clipper ship Cutty Sark in 1880 by the first mate (who subsequently killed himself).

Not much occurs in the “The Secret Sharer”per se: there are no shipwrecks or mutinies, no sea battles or feats of
seamanship. The drama, for the most part, takes place in the mind (and heart) of the unnamed young English captain—the narrator—who has recently assumed command, his first, of an unnamed ship off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand).

As the story opens, another young Englishman, Lassatt, swims to the ship, a fugitive from justice. An officer aboard the ship Sephora, Lassatt has killed a sailor during a crisis in bad weather; he openly explains his situation and acknowledges his guilt in the matter to the captain. Like the story’s narrator, Lassatt has been schooled on the Conway—the training vessel for the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine—and the young captain immediately identifies with him.

He decides to shelter Lassatt, hiding him in his cabin, concealing his presence from the crew. It’s never made clear why he identifies with the fugitive so deeply: is it the bond between two sensitive men of the same social class? Is there an element of sexual attraction? Is Lassatt his doppelganger, his double?

Conrad’s unnamed narrator struggles with this, drawn to the fugitive, and yet aware of the twisted aspects to the relationship.

He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning over my bed place, whispering side by side, with our dark heads together and our backs to the door, anybody bold enough to open it stealthily would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.

“The Secret Sharer” is about duality (the text is crammed with references to “my other self,” “my double, “the secret sharer of my life,” “my intelligent double”), a common theme in 19th century literature: think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s William Wilson, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In fact, Conrad revised the title of the story from “The Secret-Sharer” to “The Secret Sharer” so that dualism was recognized from the start.

The question of command

While the Other Self fascinates Conrad, the story is also about command—command in the sense of commanding a ship, but also of commanding one’s destiny. One critical interpretation of the story sees the episode with Leggatt as the mechanism by which the young captain faces down his self-doubts and assumes his responsibilities as the authority figure on his own ship. Certainly the resolution of the story suggests that Conrad introduced the fugitive as a way to force his young narrator to confront the very question of command. It is an unabashedly male question for Conrad: does the captain have the strength and resolve to deserve command? Can he gain the respect of his crew—who wait to see that his titular authority is matched by competence and judgment?

Where Conrad’s work rises above the conventional sea story is in his portrait of his hesitant, conflicted captain. The narrator confesses: “But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” He doubts himself: “…I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”

In contrast to this hesitancy, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey—perhaps the two best-known protagonists in 20th century nautical fiction—rarely if ever suffer from self-doubt or second thoughts: they are “men of action”
and natural leaders, cool and collected in times of crisis.

It is now clear that neither Forester (the penname of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) nor O’Brian (named Richard Patrick Russ at birth) were the naval experts they made themselves out to be; both fashioned public biographies that veered sharply from the truth. Indeed, Patrick O’Brian, who was neither Irish nor a retired naval officer as assumed by many readers, apparently had limited hands-on sailing skills! It is a testament to his skills as a researcher, and his imaginative powers, that he could produce the Aubrey–Maturin series. Perhaps Conrad’s stint as a sea captain freed him to explore the ambiguity of command in ways that Forester and O’Brian—concerned about “authenticity”— could not.

By the close of “The Secret Sharer,” Conrad’s young captain embraces his command, just as he bids farewell to “the secret sharer of my life.” He confronts this alone, having faced down his prior doubts (made human in the form of Lassatt?), and he now turns eagerly to this new responsibility. “Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.”

This is the sixth and final in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for Summer 2006.

The link for the reviewed story:

Joseph Conrad: “The Secret Sharer” and Other Stories

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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