For the success of the writer’s intention, a number of literary devices play a decisive role. One of those devices is the narrative point of view, a term used to define the perspective, or the point from which the narrator of the literary piece views everything that takes place in the narration (Griffith 37). The choice of point of view creates the necessary closeness or distance to the characters and the situation and thus promotes or discourages the readers’ involvement in or estrangement from the events described in the narration. In Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery”, the author chooses a third-person objective point of view to create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery, and additionally employs the means of characterization, detail concealing, and tone in rendering the point of view chosen.
The choice of third-person objective point of view by Shirley Jackson may be justified by the purpose of distancing the reader from the characters to diminish the emotional impact of the story while it is developing, so that the ending appears the more shocking after the emotionally neutral narration. As compared to the third-person omniscient point of view, third-person objective (or dramatic) point of view allows for the knowledge of places, times, and events but lacks insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters (Griffith 38).
In “The Lottery”, the narrator accurately reports the place and time of the traditional event, “The morning of June 27th, […] in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock…” (Jackson 120). The outward sequence of actions and the contents of conversations between the characters is also rendered precisely enough: children come first and speak of school; men follow them and talk of business; and women arrive as last and exchange the village gossip (Jackson 120–121). The whole process of preparation for the lottery is described meticulously, including the making of the lists, the marking of the paper slips, and the setting of the black lottery box (Jackson 121–122, 125).
However, in this detailed account of events, there is no sign of involvement with the personalities of the villagers. The narration appears to be indifferent like a news report and shows no sign of compassion or sympathy with the villagers feelings, thoughts, or interests. Only the outward signs of some emotional involvement are reported by the narrator in phrases like “a sudden hush fell on the crowd”, “they grinned at one another humorlessly and nervously”, “she […]greeted Mr. Summers gravely”, “turning them over and over nervously” (Jackson 122–123).
The general negative meaning of the words used to describe the behavior of the villagers only prompts to a careful reader that the people are not too happy to be taking part in the lottery. Such emotional scarceness and sullenness sharply contrasts the supposedly festive occasion of the lottery and arouses suspense that things are not as calm and ordinary as they are described.
Apart from the neutral and objective approach to describing characters, Shirley Jackson employs the method of concealing details for further enhancing the suspense in the story. On the one hand, she pays a lot of attention to describing the procedure of gathering stones before the lottery:
“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.” (Jackson 120–121)
The shape of the stones and their organization are thoroughly discussed by the narrator in the very beginning of the story. Additional attention is attracted to the stones by highlighting one of the boys’ misbehavior: “Bobby Martin ducked under his mother’s grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones” (Jackson 121). However, no explanation is provided as to why the boys should be gathering stones, arranging them so carefully and, moreover, even guarding their stone piles from the others. Another significant detail that lacks explanation is the purpose of the lottery itself.
The narrator involves into a highly detailed description of the preparation and drawing stages of the lottery, but still keeps the reader unaware of the final prize that awaits the winner. Such delaying of the truth facilitates the impact of the story dénouement which comes like a bolt from the blue for the reader. The only hints of the unpleasant nature of the prize that are scattered throughout the story may be found in the attitude of the villagers who see the lottery rather as an unpleasant but necessary chore that should be traditionally dealt with, and the sooner the better: “… guess we better get started, get this over with, so’s we can go back to work” (Jackson 122). But even with these hints, the details are not sufficient for the reader to reveal the truth too soon.
In addition to impersonal character description and concealing significant details, the point of view in “The Lottery” is maintained through the neutral and objective tone. A significant part of point of view, the tone is the attitude of the narrator to the events, characters, and ideas related in the story (Griffith 39). Similar to the way characters are ignored as personalities and events are missing key details, the tone in Shirley Jackson’s story is kept impersonal. There is no criticism, irony, curiosity, sympathy or assessment observed in the way the narrator presents the events of the lottery.
The reader is allowed to develop any possible attitude to the story told by the narrator. Not emotions but mere facts are reported in an objective, chronicle-like way that reminds more of news items than of an emotionally involved tale. Such approach allows the narrator to maintain a distance from the events occurring in the story and thus to remain not implicated in the drama that takes place in the village. In a certain sense, this emotional dissociation of the narrator reminds of the villagers’ attitude to their victim. They hit her with stones cold-bloodedly, as if performing an old ritual but not emotionally involving in it.
The success of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is by large secured through her choice of third-person objective point of view. The detailed account of events without emotional involvement in the feelings of the villagers produces a tremendous effect on the readers who remain breath taken at the appalling cruelty of the situation. Absence of personal characterization, concealing significant details, and maintaining a detached tone help the writer keep the point of view that makes the readers thrill in suspense.
Griffith, Kelley. Writing Essays about Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 4th compact ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008. 120–125. Print.