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.
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:
(You can find some of my own short fiction here.)
Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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