::Literate Blather::
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Literary Criticism: Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
Summary: On the clear and sunny morning of June 27, the 300 residents of an unnamed New England village gather in the main square. The children arrive first, collecting and piling up stones, followed by the men folk, and then the women. Mr. Summers runs the lottery, but the tradition dates back hundreds of years. On this day, Mr. Summers sets up the black lottery box in the center of the square and calls for order. Each of the men representing their families pulls out a piece of paper from the black box: Anderson, Bentham, Dunbar, Delacroix, Hutchinson, Percy, and all the way to Zanini. The Hutchinson family is the “winner” on this day. The hushed crowd watches each member of the family, including little Davy Hutchinson, draws another slip of paper from the box. Mrs. Hutchinson gets the slip with a black mark on it. Shouting “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson is brutally murdered by her neighbors as they stone her to death.

Analysis: When Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was first published in the New Yorker in 1948 – post-war readers were horrified. Hundreds of them cancelled their subscriptions and dozens more wrote scathing letters of indictment to the editors.

Mild-mannered Shirley Jackson had just ripped through the veneer of Small Town, USA and exposed the maggot-laden underbelly. Here Jackson gives us a portrait of an America nobody in 1948 was willing to see – not after the ticker-tape parades celebrating the defeat of the Nazis and Japanese. We were the heroes, after all, the good guys.

Nobody wanted to look into the mirror and see the dull, narrow-minded conformity hiding in plain sight on Main Street. But such was the well-mannered terror of Jackson’s story. Jackson’s premise – that good, hard-working folks would murder a neighbor in a barbaric ritual -- was so horrifying that many readers simply couldn’t handle it.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle a few months after "The Lottery" was published, Jackson said: “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.”

Jackson’s tale reads like a bland “day-in-the-life” story in a rather ordinary New England town. That’s because Jackson lulls the reader into believing that herein lies an innocent story and not something so horribly twisted they will be cringing by the time they read the last paragraph. Notice in the first paragraph how Jackson uses long sentences to help put the reader at easy and mimic the easy rambling style of an old Yankee narrator:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flower were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some town there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to started on June 2nd, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”
The story follows this pattern to the end. The reader feels like they have stepped into a small village and this lottery they are talking about is something like the square dances and church suppers that are held every Saturday night at the town hall. There’s Old Man Warner complaining that the lottery “ain’t what it used to be!” Dabnabit!

Everyone is so damn polite. Mr. Summers himself, running a bit late, declares, “Little late today, folks!” There’s Mrs. Hutchinson so busy washing dishes that heck she completely forgot what day it was. “Thought my old man was out back stacking wood,” she tells Mrs. Delacroix. “And then I looked out the window and the kids was gone, and then I remembered it was the twenty-seventh and came a-running.”

She should have kept running.

There are sign posts along the way and it’s enough to infuse the reader with a growing sense of unease. There’s the boy, Bobby Martin, stuffing his pockets with stones and the other boys “selecting the smoothest and roundest stones.” There’s the dreaded black box Mr. Summers carries into the square that causes a murmur in the crowd. There’s the trepidation roiling through the crowd just before the drawing (strangely, the reader thinks, the prospect of winning this lottery doesn’t seem to make folks happy).

The reader’s hackles begin to rise when Mr. Adams and Old Man Warner begin to talk about other villages giving up the lottery. That nonsense gets Old Man Warner ranting about young folks and breaking tradition.

“`Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,’ he added petulantly. ‘Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everyone.’
`Some places have already quit lotteries,’ Mr. Adams said.
‘Nothing but trouble in that,’ Old Man Warner said stoutly. `Pack of young fools.’”
Now the reader knows something is wrong, but not how wrong.

By the time Mr. Summers calls for everyone to be quick about it and they gather up the stones – giving Mrs. Hutchinson’s toddler boy a rock to throw at his mother – and monstrously murdering her by stoning, the reader is slack jawed. You can feel the chill running down your spine – even after repeated readings.

That’s the power Jackson displays here. “The Lottery” is so good, so intensely disturbing that it still has the ability to shock even today.

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