Short Story Sunday: The Lottery

Oh, this was absolutely horrid and I hated it, hated it, hated it. Shirley Jackson may be highly esteemed by many of you, and she may be an excellent writer, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her. And if her other work is any way similar to The Lottery then I don’t want to read it. All in all, I found it deeply disturbing and unsettling. There are other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories which I disliked, but I don’t think I felt quite as strongly about them as I did about this, and it is probably a failing on my part. All I can say is that this author is not for me.
It all starts off innocently enough. It’s a clear, sunny day in a small village, and it’s the day of the traditional lottery, when everyone gathers together and takes a slip of paper from a battered old box. The slips are blank, but one has a black spot on it… So someone is selected for something… Initially it’s hard to see where this is leading. There’s a festive mood, and everyone is dressed in their best, and the word ‘lottery’ makes one think of games, and raffles, and sweepstakes, and lucky winners. But a lottery is a game of chance, where the outcome is not necessarily happy. And the boys have filled their pockets with stones, which makes you wonder what is to happen.
Whether or not I like her (and I’ve already said I don’t), Jackson is a clever writer who builds the tension, line by line, word by word, and the feeling of menace gets heavier and heavier as the story progresses. Even so, I was shocked at the spine-chilling ending, which seems all the more horrendous when set against the ordinariness of the day, and the homely activities people have been engaged in.  Why do the villagers go along with this bizarre ritual? They must know it’s wrong, and other places have given up the old ways, but here they stick to the past just as they’ve always done. I suppose it’s a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
And I began to wonder just how random the choice of victim actually was, or whether there was an element of manipulation, or sleight of hand, ensuring that outsiders, trouble-makers or those that question are removed from society. This was published in 1948 – a few years later and I might have given more consideration to that thought, and seen the story as an allegory for the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ against Communism. Perhaps Jackson was inspired by the awful events in Nazi Germany, where ordinary people were happy to point fingers of accusation against others, or to become complicit in the atrocities through their silence.
But there seems to be something more ancient here, connected with those old tales about scapegoats and sacrificial victims (willing or unwilling) whose fate ensures the well-being of others for another year. 

8 thoughts on “Short Story Sunday: The Lottery

  1. Oh I do so agree with you. I came across this in a book of American short stories and really wish I hadn't read it. I've just finished a book of short stories by Edith Pearlman: 'Binocular Vision' and I think she is the best short- story writer ever … even better than Alice Munro! Unfortunately, I borrowed it from our wonderful local library (in Rutland) so couldn't copy your method of reading one a week and savouring them. Thank-you for an inspiring blog, it says much more to me than those written by people who seem inundated with free books.


  2. Thank you for the kind comment, I like to be able to read what I want, when I want! I've never come across Edith Pearlman, but I enjoyed the Alice Munro collection I read, so I'll try and read some of her work. Not sure if our library will have it though.


  3. If you want to try a completely different type of book by Shirley Jackson, there is Life Among the Savages, and its sequel Raising Demons. Warm, funny family memoirs – but not sappy or sentimental. I read them long before The Lottery & love them still.


  4. I have to agree that The Lottery is a very shocking story. I had no idea what was going on but just 'knew' it wasn't going to end well. My own particular favourite short story collection is Minnie's Room: The Peacetime Stories of Molly Panter-Downes. I thought each story was a perfect little package.


  5. Minnie's Room is one of my favourites. I hadn't read a lot of short stories before I started this book, and I think it's a perfect introduction to the genre, with lots of different writers, and different styles. There's only been a handful of stories I didn't like.


  6. This is Shirley Jackson`s most notorious piece of work, but please don`t write her off because of it! Somewhere I read a most enlightening account by the author about how she wrote The Lottery and what the overwhelming response was to its appearance in The New Yorker – I believe it was in an anthology of her work. Anyway, it would make you view it in a completely different light, and yes, I believe the allegorical slant was deliberate. Talk about the banality of evil… I`ll see if I can find that reference.

    Please do try Life Among the Savages – it is a rather delicious family memoir, and nothing like this short piece of magazine fiction.


  7. Oh, thank you – if you can find the reference I'd like to read it. Lisa mentioned Life Among the Savages as well, and it sounds much more my kind of book. I should give her another go, because I had a similar experience with Katherine Mansfield. I hated her short story in this Persephone collection, but loved the ones I have read since then.


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