Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (1948)

I’m no great fan of Halloween, but I find myself attracted to creepy stories these days. I’m right in the middle of P.D. James’ Original Sin, that proves a masterpiece in teasing and foreboding (I’ll definitely post about that as I try to figure out how she does it). I’m also reading the Mysteries of Udolpho, the very first Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe. And tempted by Heather at the Library Ladder (and the Literate Kitten’s great list), I quickly read The Lottery during my lunch break. 

Careful, possible spoilers ahead! 

It’s an American classic short story, but Shirley Jackson’s reputation hasn’t crossed the Atlantic yet. I didn’t know the first thing about it, which was good. Basically, we get to see the preparation and the process of a very special sort of a lucky draw in a small American village. Let’s just say that the “winner’s” fate is not to be envied. 

I actually didn’t find this story very scary, as I had from the first page or so a sense of tragedy. The writer was careful not to give any clue early on to betray her intention, but you know somehow, from the seriousness of the people and the solemnity of the proceedings, that the lottery is not just a fun fair. And there was the pile of stones. I guess being scared relies very much on feeling close to the main characters of a story. In that case, the very typical American village life didn’t work very well with me, and I missed some clues that the story might have been contemporary. To me it rather came out like an old archetypical western story, where fate looms large as to decide whether a man can live or die. And I couldn’t really empathize with any character. 

What really surprised me was the reaction of American readers in 1948 to this cruel story: outrage and hate mail against Shirley Jackson, subscription cancellations, etc. Perhaps it was heightened by the fact that the writer was a woman. But that 1948 readers could be incensed by such a story has me dismayed. This was published in The New Yorker, not in a village newspaper! They were just 3 years away from the end of WWII, which in the realm of cruelty and lack of humanity, had been way beyond ritual stoning. I just don’t get it. And this, really, is scary.

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2 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (1948)

  1. I remember reading this for class in the 7th grade and finding it creepy, but I also had teacher telling us WHY it was creepy and scary. I think good instruction helped me appreciate the story, and I think it is a good story for pre-teens. But I don’t think it stands on it’s own as much as a scary short story for adults in this day and age.

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