The Lottery

For something a bit different, I will talk about The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, which you can find yourself, since copyright laws are different everywhere. It is a short story, and doesn’t take too long to read. It is ranked today as “one of the most famous short stories in the history of American literature” even though it was not very popular to begin with. Shirley Jackson received a lot of hate mail in response to her story, but it eventually died down.

I cannot honestly tell you why I read The Lottery or how I even came to know about it, but I think I stumbled upon it on a blog of some sort, in one of the comments. And for a long time I just had it bookmarked, waiting for me to find a copy and read it. And then recently I did.

What did I think about it? I loved it. I haven’t read too many short stories before and none really out of my own choosing (to prepare to write my own short stories in school). The few I have read include, A Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, Lamb to Slaughter by Roald Dahl and A Vendetta by Guy De Maupassant and they were all quite good, but I honestly liked The Lottery more.

It starts out so normal and civilized, like most short stories (especially the ones I mentioned) do. And the way Jackson set the scene with so much detail, which is normally left out in short stories, or indeed stories, was impressive. Throughout the story, there is the question of what is going on, and why are they doing this/that. And for nearly the whole story, you have no idea what the real purpose of the lottery is, even though cleverly there is some nice pieces of foreshadowing (as every great story {short or not} has) that are so harmless you ignore them. I mean at first, with the boys collecting rocks, it just sounded like that was what boys do. But as all that have read the short story, and I hope you have before the ending is given away, the ending is not nice, it is good writing and all, but the idea is nasty, plain nasty.

And the ending is clearly what infuriated people, what made people write hate mail to Jackson. I personally had absolutely not inclination to go and write hate mail (don’t know about you), even though I am quite vocal and stubborn with my opinions. But I do understand that to some, the idea of the story is terrible and horrific, and in their opinion should not read by children or anyone. The whole sense of calmness and normalcy with the ending and the whole event, probably makes this story hated. The idea that it is teaching children it is okay to be violet and that hurting people is normal, etc would probably be the view of some people, but I did not think that at all. Yes the idea of stoning someone just because they picked the wrong piece of paper, is horrific and not okay, but the story doesn’t say it is okay, and for me it blatantly says it is not okay.

The theme and symbolism and ‘message’ of the story is different to everyone and some people don’t get it (I mean I’m not quite getting the whole message and real point of Cloudstreet but that doesn’t stop me from liking it and taking things from it), and many messages to Jackson have been (after the hate mail) asking what the story is about. And some ‘experts’ say various things about the meaning of the names and the significance of the method of lottery and of stoning, etc. For me it more about the idea of tradition and how some people stick by it no matter how absurd. And that the idea of just doing things ‘because it is tradition’ is lunacy. The story is also about the idea of how sane, ‘normal’ people can do irrational, ‘crazy’ things for one reason or another (tradition or because it is an order in war, etc).

The whole point of the story, for me, is saying that just because something is tradition, doesn’t mean it is ‘right’. I must also comment on the fact that Mrs. Hutchinson who got stoned, arrived late, and in a sense was punished for forgetting about the ‘important day’. Mrs. Hutchinson also was the only one to say it isn’t fair and in essence was saying that what they do isn’t right, even though it could be just because her and her family were chosen.

I also like the fact that other towns were mentioned as having gotten rid of the lottery, and Old Man Warner, was so adamant that getting rid of it was a terrible idea, and would only cause trouble and that it was the young people who were able to see that it is wrong and should be abolished. It draws parallel to the real world, where many old people are stuck in their ways (especially racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc, even ideas take a long time to change like the world being round, or the earth not at the center of the universe) while the younger generations openly accept these differences, and actually ‘change the world’. The old are stuck in their ways, and the young are there to break those ways.

I really loved The Lottery and will definitely read some of Shirley Jackson’s other work, some of which may feature back on this blog. BTW, there have even been film adaptations to The Lottery which can be found on youtube (in two parts), or here (in full), and the 1969 ‘movie’ was quite good (the more recent ones I have not been able to see) and I recommend you to try to have a look at it.


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