Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a memorable short story that has been called a piece of gothic horror (Contemporary Literary Criticism – Select). It is also clearly a piece of social commentary. It has even been analyzed as a feminist critique of patriarchy and male oppression (Oehlschlaeger). It gets part of its power as a piece of horror and social commentary from author’s “pyrotechnical command of ordinary language” (Kittredge), termed by Nebeker as “deadpan,” to describe very disturbing and frightening events (Nebecker).
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Shirley Jackson, in this most famous of her works, uses both setting and characterization to lull her reader into a false sense of complacency and serenity, but then delivers a powerful ironic wallop, demonstrating that there can be evil in even pleasant places and people.
Jackson chooses a beautiful season, a scenic setting, and a population that is rural, obviously hard-working and seems to come from a storybook. The weather is “clear and sunny” (Jackson) on the June day of the action, with a “fresh warmth” (Jackson). The town is apparently fertile, with flowers “blossoming profusely,” and “richly green” grass” (Jackson).
The people are serious about their tasks, suggesting that they have good values. The men speak of “planting and rain, tractors and taxes” (Jackson), and Mr. Summers wants to hurry, “so’s we can go back to work.” (Jackson). These descriptions lead the reader to visualize this as a place where nothing bad could happen.
The characters are described as appealing and reasonable. The women are not very worried about vanity because they arrive in “faded house dresses” (Jackson). Tessie reports that she was working so hard she forgot the time (Jackson). Mr. Summers is described as professionally dressed and competent (Jackson). Tessie’s neighbors encourage her, even when she arrives a bit late (Jackson). Everyone seems like nice solid citizens.
However, all this loveliness does not prevent horror. It does not stop the event the people of this town from doing undeserved violence to a randomly selected member of their community. This hideous outcome comes as Jackson’s ironic surprise, described by Cleveland as dramatic and bleak” because the characters and the setting have been so normal and pleasant-seeming (Cleveland). For example, the townspeople chat about nothings while collecting stones (Jackson).
The leap from a civil, matter of fact ritual to the enthusiastic violence of the stoning is sudden. There is a little transition between the point where the author tells us, “Mr. Summers said, ‘Let’s finish quickly ‘”and the shocking announcement that “they still remembered to use stones.” (Jackson). Mrs. Delacroix, who starts out being very pleasant, is described as having, “selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands.” She urges a neighbor, “Come on,” and “Hurry up.” (Jackson).
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The children are encouraged to kill their own parent. The author tells us, “Someone gave Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” (Jackson). Even the title, itself, suggests winning a prize, rather than being stoned to death in what Parks characterizes as an “act of vengeance or retribution” (Parks) (Jackson).
Shirley Jackson has been appreciated for her contribution to the “best horror that has been written” (Kittredge). Part of the effectiveness of this story is the ironic contrast that she creates. She uses simple and day-to-day language to describe both the “cruel and the comedic” (Kittredge).
With words that lead the reader to think that her characters are just folks like anybody else, set in a lush and quaint village, she sets her audience up for an ironic slap in the face. Although there are hints, the unwary reader will shake their heads when she demonstrates “the evil behind the ordinary” (Kittredge).
Cleveland, Carol. “Shirley Jackson.” And Then There Were Nine… More Women of Mystery. Ed. Jane S. Bakerman. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985. 199-219.
Contemporary Literary Criticism – Select. “Shirley Jackson: A biographical review.” 2014. Web.
Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” 2014. Middlebury College. Web.
Kittredge, Mary. “The Other Side of Magic: A Few Remarks About Shirley Jackson.” Discovering Modern Horror Fiction. Ed. Darrell Schweitzer. Starmont House, 1985. 3-12.
Nebecker, Helen. “‘The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force.” American Literature 46.1 (1974): 100-07. Contemporary Literary Criticism – Select. Web.
Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. “The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning and Context in ‘The Lottery”.” Essays in Literature XV.2 (1988): 259-65.
Parks, John G. “Chambers of Yearning: Shirley Jackson’s Use of the Gothic.” Twentieth Century Literature 30.1 (1984): 15-29. Contemporary Literary Criticism – Select. Web.