The Lottery - a critical assessment


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A critical review of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery I did for uni


The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson was published in the news magazine New Yorker on 26 June, 1948 (New Yorker 1948). It generated a tremendous amount of controversy and negative publicity both for Jackson and the magazine. Yet not all of the responses were negative. Some even wrote in to the New Yorker, asking where the lotteries took place, so they could come and watch (Murphy 2005).

A lot of the notoriety surrounding the story has to do with place. Jackson admitted in a later interview that she had her hometown in Vermont in mind when she wrote The Lottery though she never made any kind of one to one correspondence between the actors in her story and the people she knew in life (Murphy 2005).

On the surface, it appears that the villagers are typical of what kind of person one may encounter in a small country town: close-knit, familial, industrious, gossipy, tradition-bound. The sense of place in the village hints at a resistance to change (as exemplified by Old Man Warner) with a gentle dissenting voice of progress in Mr. Summers. It would seem that the lottery could not take place anywhere else but a town like the one in the story. The big cities are too progressive. There are enough allusions inside the story to say that the world is passing them by, even as Old Man Warner disapproves of neighbouring villages abandoning the time-honoured ritual.

Then there are the people within the story. Mr. Graves the postmaster, Tess Hutchinson the “winner” of the lottery, Mr. Summers the businessman, the children who gather the stones. The educational website Shmoop University states that the characters within The Lottery are allegories, especially Mr. Graves – death, Mr. Summers – progress, and Old Man Warner – inflexible tradition (shmoop.com 2014). We are viewing these apparently simple-minded townsfolk in any way other than face value. Mrs. Hutchinson the hypocrite – she urges her husband to hurry up and pull a name out of the box, then complains when their family name is chosen. In common parlance, it is all fun and games until it involves yourself.

This is a prime example of textual interpretation – hermeneutics. The science of reading into things. Upon first reading, The Lottery is representative of the twist ending. One may be expecting to read a town gathered to elect a citizen for some particularly unwanted or onerous position, though like with all good tales that have a twist, Jackson earlier alludes to the winner’s fate with subtleties such as the children collecting stones or the colour of the box the names are put into. The climax of the story can be a brutal shock then, as it was for many who read it originally back in 1948. Then there are the ultimate failings of character one can see in the townsfolk. Inflexible tradition where rote for the sake of rote trumps all, including friendship, family ties and basic human compassion.

In his book How Fiction Works, James Wood talks of register and how a story’s mood or the author’s intent can be set by style (Wood 2009 p. 148). In the case of The Lottery, the style is left purposely ordinary. It is presented matter-of-factly, with the third person narrator soullessly separated from the story it is presenting. This adds to the story’s impact as nowhere is it posited as the tale of murder and dark ritual that it is. It is a plain telling and there is no doubt had the story been framed as a horror tale or a thriller, there would be minimal impact.

In my short story Another Day Ends, place and person are not so important (Booth 2014). With minor modification, my protagonist Jimmy could be wandering about on a spaceship with little green men just as much as he is in a park on a sad afternoon. The most important aspect is point of view. I have used first person as it was imperative for the story to get into the head of Jimmy and say things from his perspective, flawed or as biased as they may be. First person is mimetic according to O’Neill (1996). He believes that maximum showing in a story can be achieved by first person, as opposed to the various third person viewpoints. The emphasis in those, states O’Neill, is diegesis or telling. Despite this, Another Day Ends has a fair amount of telling. Jimmy is telling the reader how it is largely between he and his partner Lisa, while he is walking alone in the waning afternoon. The telling is given through internalisation or reflective thought as Jimmy never speaks to the reader. However, there is speech from Lisa scattered through the story, unanswered dialogue that gives her point of view on affairs, even if Jimmy cannot directly respond to her.

It is point of view that directly connects the reader with Jimmy’s problems and thoughts (Booth 2014). The problem is he is in denial about the illness he is suffering. His thoughts waver from this central fact as he goes on his stroll, even as Lisa’s accusing words come back to him unbidden. Jimmy is possibly an unreliable narrator and although Lisa’s voice is there amid the wandering and reflection, the reader possibly cannot be sure of the veracity of it. Did she really say these things or is Jimmy inventing them to give his beliefs a justifiable (in his eyes) opposition? Of course, it is open to interpretation, as it was intended. Giving it all away is telling, or complete exposition.

In summary, both Jackson’s The Lottery and my Another Day Ends are examples of different components in a story at work. The former is predominantly place and person, with scant regard given to point of view or another kind of structure apart from voice. Yet the story works so effectively because the sense of place and the nature of the persons within are so efficiently done. With the latter story, it is point of view as the aim was to reach within Jimmy’s mind and relay his thoughts, chaotic as they may be, as he wanders.

References

Booth, P, 2014, Another Day Ends, short story assignment, Southern Cross University.

Jackson, S 1948, ‘The lottery’, New Yorker, 26 June, 1948, viewed 10 September, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/06/26/the-lottery

Murphy, B (ed) 2005, Shirley Jackson: essays on the literary legacy, McFarland & Co, Inc, North Carolina.

O’Neill, P 1996 ‘Discourse discoursed: the ventriloquism effect’ in Fictions of discourse: Reading narrative theory, University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Shmoop University (Shmoop.com), 2014, The Lottery, viewed 11 September, 2014 http://www.shmoop.com/lottery-shirley-jackson/

Wood, J, 2008, ‘Language’ in How fiction works, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, London.

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