Aug 23, 2008

Short Story Saturday - The Lottery


The first line of Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery is filled with pleasantness: "The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green." But anyone who has ever read this classic short story knows that it isn't a pleasant one. I, like many people, first read this story in middle school. I am curious to know what makes this appropriate reading for that age level. What do we hope for them to learn by reading this?

The story was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. The New Yorker and Jackson personally received an overwhelming amount of hate mail. Jackson said that in the mail, "People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch."

In a small American town, there is a yearly event steeped in a 77 year tradition. This is the lottery in which each family in the town draws out a small piece of paper from a box; one slip with a black spot indicates the family that will participate in a second drawing. Each family member again pulls out a slip of paper. The single family member with the black dot in the second drawing is the winner.

While there is a lot of emphasis put in the story about how this is a very important tradition to the town and the materials used and the things done and said, it is never explicitly stated what the lottery is for.

"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

Old Man Warner snorted. "Pack of crazy fools," he said. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves...."
Why are the townspeople holding the lottery? Why don't they stop?

Jackson uses irony and comedy to suggest an underlying evil, hypocrisy, and weakness of human kind. Her use of friendly language among the villagers adds a very surreal quality to the event as well as the presentation of the lottery as an event similar to square dances. The idyllic way in which Jackson sets the scene and has the characters interact with each other provides The Lottery be another short story I have explored in the dystopic genre.

Over time The Lottery came be accepted into the American cannon but even Jackson's own parents were disappointed in the story originally, "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker," she wrote sternly; "it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?"

Have you read this story? How has it impacted you?

5 comments:

  1. I read this in high school. I have always remembered it. I don't know why it's so well-read. It's pretty depressing. I guess I should reread it now. Maybe there is something I missed?

    (I'm commenting first so I can read everyone else's comments because I want to know others' answers to your question...)

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  2. Thanks for this review... actually motivated me to find the story online and read it... a quick google brought up the full text in several places...

    A great read...

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  3. Actually I have already linked to a full text of the story within the post itself.

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  4. I re-read this story a few months ago. Jackson is a master at conveying dread through subtext. Jackson's characters are so very human; I see it as a cautionary tale.

    For some reason, I always mentally link this piece with Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," another favorite short story of mine.

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