The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
First published in 1948 in The New Yorker, The Lottery both caused outrage and brought fame to Shirley Jackson. The New Yorker got more letters about this story than any other story in its history.
Justifiably so. The Lottery is a horrifying story and perfectly constructed. I think it’s a masterpiece.
Listen to my reading of it here:
Read it for yourself online here:
Now, I want to look first at the construction.
First of all, the setting is an ordinary everyday world. It’s a beautiful June day in New England. This is a folksy American village. This initial setting is guaranteed to conjure up some kind of rural idyll of peace and neighbourliness. The names are all Anglo-, down to earth names. Where the names aren’t English, they are included to remark upon: the French Delacroix, which gets a comment, and the Italian Zanini as a period to the list of names. This is a peaceful place of farmers and fields and apple pie and dishes that are not left dirty in the sink.
This could be a village in Old England, which further roots it in Anglo culture and ties into all the English country idyll images. Only the comment that there is a memory of when the village was founded sets it in America. (The founding of English villages is nearly always before recorded history.)
So that’s the set-up.
In terms of masterful foreshadowing, Jackson smuggles in the fateful and fatal pile of stones by describing what looks like the ordinary horsing around of small boys. At this point, we don’t know what they are for, and it is not until right at the end this is revealed, creating that ‘aha!’ that readers love.
The patriarchal structure of the village society underlines its conservative nature. Women are expected to come after their men. They stand apart from them, just like in traditional churches and synagogues and mosques. A grown boy is preferred to be the head of the family rather than the wife.
Old Man Warner is the voice of tradition, and like all oldsters everywhere, he thinks things in the modern age have gone to pot, and folk ain’t what they used to be. Tradition is important because, heck, it’s tradition, and that alone is good enough.
The construction of the box is dwelled upon. This emphasises its down to earthness and reinforces the naturalistic setting. The fact it is not the same box shows the length of the tradition of the Lottery. The fact the box lurks in various unglamorous and unimportant stashing places from year to year underlines how assimilated into ordinary life the Lottery is.
So we are set up for the sheer quotidian nature of the Lottery. It’s just what folk do—no big deal.
Jackson also employs the ticking clock device to build tension. We see this in all thrillers. At first, the reaction and chat of the folks is plain, every-day and low-key. Then the ticking clock of the list of names begins. Jackson breaks up the beats of the name-list with apparently unimportant quips and comments of the folk standing there. But as the name list gets further down the alphabet, we begin to suspect that rather than this being plain and wholesome and merely a harmless rural tradition, something wholly sinister and malign is going on.
Jackson resists the urge to make things surreal and continues to maintain the naturalistic air of ordinariness through noting the reactions of those assembled: Old Man Warner’s rabbiting about tradition, the schoolgirls who hope their friend Nancy doesn’t draw the ticket. Tessie’s quiet whining about fairness. The sober resignation of everyone else, their unobtrusive gladness that it wasn’t them who pulled the black spot.
The black spot, of course, features in Treasure Island: the pirate who got the black spot from his mates was marked to be killed by them.
I want to comment on some references that popped into my mind. First, there are resonances with the folk horror 2019 film Mid-Sommar in which a rural community (in this case in Sweden) has brutal traditions which are horrifying to outsiders but perfectly accepted within the community. The difference is that Mid-Sommar gives us some, albeit inadequate, rationale for the culling of its elderly population.
This trope of remote rural communities that maintain bloody traditions whose origin is lost in the mists of time is a staple of folk horror stories. I recently read H R Wakefield’s The First Sheaf, which is a perfect example of this but see also The Wicker Man. Backwoods folk do bad things, as we all know. Though I’m pretty backwoods myself, and I’ve never indulged in a bloodthirsty ritual.
But then we have The Purge series of films which, though very urban, are almost tributes to The Lottery, albeit lacking any subtlety, humour, craft or restraint.
The combination of ordinariness and brutality in The Lottery is also found in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where the men who are about to commit remorseless murder have an everyday discussion about the merits of Royale with Cheese hamburgers. Tarantino does this a lot.
We also see this in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where we have a similar small-town America going about its pleasant life, and behind the veil is awful murder and depravity. But differently to this, Blue Velvet separates the two worlds: the happy smiley world of the small town is separate from the demimonde of horrifying violence, perverted sexuality and drugs.
In the Lottery, there is no separation: Jackson does not even interweave strands of wholesome folksy life and brutal, remorseless traditions.
The juxtaposition of ordinariness and brutality creates the sheer sense of horror that this is going on. And she builds this by the step by step by step process of the Lottery—this ticking clock that leads us inexorably to the terrible conclusion. And the proceedings are all so formal yet folksy. It is like a village sports day, amateur and bored and taking itself seriously in a country town way.
Perhaps the height of horror is that there is no explanation of why the Lottery goes ahead other than it is tradition. It is all so pointless.
Why do people put up with it? Mrs Delacroix shouts to the condemned Tessie Hutchinson “Be a good sport, Tessie!” Even her own husband Bill, even when he knows one of his family or himself is soon to die, tells her “Shut up, Tessie!” When she she complains groundlessly that “It wasn’t fair.”
The message is that they would rather stand by while the innocent are murdered than risk not fitting in with the community.
…”And someone gave little Davey Hutchinson a few pebbles.”
Jackson is undoubtedly correct that real horror all the world over is like this. Just look at the News every day, and you will see that all the death and destruction is almost always this banal and pointless. That is the absolute horror of The Lottery. Through this piece of fiction, Jackson throws a burning light on a truth that none of us wants to accept. Like the friendly, decent folk in this story, we have resigned ourselves to everyday horror.