Book review: ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson

(spoilers)

In true Tostevinwrites fashion, this is a review of a short story that’s 72 years old. So yes, this will contain spoilers. You’ve had plenty of time – and if you’re trailing a few decades behind like I was, quick, quick, sneak off and read it here before I start talking about it.

I’ll even include a Lottery-appropriate GIF here to create a barrier. You’re welcome.

Right, still with me? This was the short story that caused such an uproar in 1948 when it was first published in the New Yorker, that the magazine received the most mail it had ever received in response to a work of fiction. Shirley Jackson herself received so much hate mail she could barely carry the load of forwarded letters home. Clearly, she hit a nerve with the American readers. 

‘The Lottery’ focuses on the community of a small unidentified American town who come together annually to select a member by chance to be stoned to death. Hints about securing a good harvest are included, but we never really find out why, other than “there’s always been a lottery.”

The story addresses a number of different themes in its short text; that of violence, of mob mentality, of conscription, of meaningless sacrifice and scapegoats, of men and women carrying out their ‘duty’ unquestioningly no matter the human cost. In interviews, Jackson talks about the insidiousness of the very first sentence; about luring the reader into a false sense of comfort by hiding such violence in a beautiful setting: “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.”

Chillingly, when asked in an interview why she thought her story was so hated, she answered that “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.” Could there be a more clear indication of why this violent narrative hit a nerve with the audience?

In ‘Consider This: Moments in my writing life after which everything was different’, Chuck Palahniuk uses Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ specifically to illustrate many of the techniques outlined in the minimalist writing approach used by Tom Spanbauer and himself. 

The first being the act of hiding the gun in your story. “Where’s your gun?” is one of Chuck’s favorite questions to ask writers. WHEN have you set the clock to run out and WHERE have you planted a seed of the element which will bring down the third act?

In this novel, Jackson expertly plants her ‘gun’ immediately in front of you, even going back to its seemingly innocuous form numerous times: “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”—eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.”

We initially see only a childlike game, a setting of the scene. The stones mean nothing, until they do. And a few thousand words later, they’re used to stone the selected to death. 

Importantly, as readers we’re given a single sentence warning – an opportunity to have the penny drop – before it’s spelled out for us. “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones”, Jackson writes. And then, in terrible technicolor: “The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready”.

Secondly, Jackson makes use of the technique of recycling objects to greater meaning each time they’re described. The “little black box” is introduced early on, and with every revisit we learn something about it – the fact that it’s older than the oldest man in the town, that it’s scuffed and cracked, that it is annually called upon etc. There is something about this box that captivates the town crowd, and that indicates to us that it represents so much more than it did on first attention.

While this short story is the perfect example of establishing and raising tension, I gave it three stars because I’ve been spoiled by the beautiful language in my recent reads. Jackson is no poet, her prose is thick and focused mostly on action accuracy. Full of unnecessarily lengthy sentences and buckets of semicolons. 

Still, there’s an awful lot to be learned from this piece of work (and it has inspired numerous films and novels since, including the Hunger Games). From a structural point of view, and the subject matter. This ignited rage and hostility from a society that had been torn apart by World War II only 3 years before, and had seen people lost to a similar kind of ‘random’ fate.

Still, this story doesn’t go to the very darkest corners that it hints at. Little Dave, likely no more than four years old, is shortlisted along with his immediate family. And though Tessa (his mother) eventually draws the black spot and is chosen as the sacrifice, it is made clear to us that the township would have stoned that baby to death without hesitation if he was chosen.

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