Magazine article The World and I

The Lottery

Magazine article The World and I

The Lottery

Article excerpt

With the current interest in the supernatural, especially vampires and such, it might be interesting to turn back the clock a bit and revisit Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," often called "a classic horror story." One of the statements in her obituary was that "she used a broomstick for a pen," and it is true that she wrote frequently about ghosts, witches, and matters macabre. While she is perhaps best remembered for "The Lottery," she should be remembered for her entire body of work. She was a prolific author during her brief career.

Shirley Jackson (1919-1965) was born in San Francisco and attended Syracuse University, from which she graduated in 1940. That same year she married Stanley Edgar Hyman, American critic and educator, and they settled in Vermont. Ms. Jackson's work ranged from her accounts of family living in Life among the Savages (1945) and Raising Demons (1953) to her other novels: The Road Through the Wall (1948), Hangsaman (1951), The Bird's Nest (1954), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). The Lottery, a collection of short stories, was published in 1944. Her husband edited a collection of her works, The Magic of Shirley Jackson, in 1966.

Some of her novels have been adapted for stage and screen. Hugo Haas' film Lizzie (1957) was based on The Bird's Nest. In 1963, The Haunting of Hill House was adapted as the film The Haunting, and in 1966 We Have Always Lived in the Castle was made into a play with Shirley Knight in the leading role. More recently (2010), We Have Always Lived in the Castle was turned into a musical play and performed at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Some of her novels and short stories have been published in the Library of America series.

"The Lottery" is still her most memorable piece of work, however, and it contains her characteristic elements: the skillful blending of concrete reality and a sense of brooding mystery and terror. In commenting on her writing, her husband wrote: "Her fierce visions of dissociation and madness, of alienation and withdrawal, of cruelty and terror, have been taken to be personal, even neurotic, fantasies. Quite the reverse: they are a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times."

The plot is deceptively simple. On a June day, the village children, women, and men, gather in the square. They indulge in their usual activities, talking about school, taxes, and other events. The boys, however, make a pile of smooth stones. The reader is told that in the past the lottery used to take two days, but since this particular town has only about 100 people, it usually takes only two hours. It begins at 10 a.m. and is over before lunch. No one really remembers how the whole business of the lottery began, but many insist that it must continue.

Each male head of the household (or woman if there is no male) in alphabetical order goes to the box and draws a slip of paper from the box. They keep it folded in the palms of their hands until the drawing is over; then they look at it. Bill Hutchinson has the slip of paper with the black dot, and his wife, Tessie, throws a fit. She claims that her husband did not have enough time. She is overruled, however, and the lottery continues. All the Hutchinson family's tickets are placed back in the box, and this time Tessie draws the ticket with the black dot. The villagers pick up the stones they have collected and begin throwing them at Tessie, who is still complaining about the process and continues to do so until the first stone hits her. …

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