A classic in modern literature, "The Lottery" did more in nine pages than most novels do in nine chapters. Here's how Shirley Jackson outraged a nation with fewer than 3,500 words.
Spoiler alert: this article reveals the ending of "The Lottery". If you haven't read it, hop to it! It'll take 15 minutes, tops.
In 1948, The New Yorker published the most controversial short story in its history: "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, a 31-year-old wife and mother living in Vermont. The simply told tale covers a ritual lottery in a sunny, rural town. But what starts out bathed in warmth and charm grows eerier and eerier, until the horrific purpose of the lottery is revealed in the story's final paragraphs. Soon after the piece was published, angry letters poured in to The New Yorker. Readers canceled their subscriptions. And while many claimed they didn't understand the story, the intense reaction indicated they understood it all too well.
"The Lottery" was published at a time when America was scrambling for conformity. Following World War II, the general public wanted to leave behind the horrors of war and genocide. They craved comfort, normalcy, and old-fashioned values. Jackson's story was a cutting commentary on the dangers of blind obedience to tradition, and she threw it, like a grenade, into a complacent post-war society.
LUCK OF THE DRAW
Shirley Jackson was not the kind of person you'd expect to be a literary firebrand. Shy and high-strung, she dropped out of the University of Rochester in 1935. Her second stab at school was more successful. At age 20, she enrolled at Syracuse University, where she met her future husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. Together, they published a short-lived literary magazine called The Spectre.
After graduating from Syracuse, the two got married and moved to New York City, where Jackson gave birth to the first of her four children. Soon after, in 1945, Hyman got a job teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. The family moved to North Bennington, a tiny, rural town that later became the setting for "The Lottery." While Stanley taught, Jackson wrote. She penned a few offbeat stories for The New Yorker, but mostly she produced mainstream pieces for women's periodicals such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal. After several years of living in Vermont, Jackson had another child and was carrying a third. From a distance, her life seemed tranquil and wholesome. But something darker was brewing inside.
On a sunny June day in 1948, while taking a long walk, that darkness emerged. Several months pregnant and pushing a baby carriage loaded with groceries, Jackson found the trip more difficult than she'd anticipated. The entire time, she couldn't stop thinking about the book her husband had shown her on ancient rites of human sacrifice.
As soon as Jackson got home, she wrote the 3,378 words of "The Lottery." It took her just two hours, and seemed to flow out of her nearly perfect. "Except for one or two minor corrections," she remembered later, "It needed no changes."
Her husband quickly recognized the story was genius, and Jackson sent it on to her editor at The New Yorker. Soon, her life would change.
THE RULES OF THE GAME
The tale begins pleasantly in a small, unnamed town. The day is "clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day," and the people are gathering the square, children first. "Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones," we're told -the first vague note of menace in the story. Soon, the adults arrive, joking, gossiping, and "speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes." This is Everytown, USA, Jackson implies. But something is off. The villagers are piling up rocks.
Then the lottery begins. One by one, the head of each household draws a slip of paper from the box. Casual dialogue and deadpan description mask a building sense of danger. Only the occasional unexplained reference hints at the macabre. "Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn will be heavy soon,'" says Old Man Warner. It seems that whatever is taking place has been going on since time immemorial.
One of the townspeople, Bill Hutchinson, draws the unlucky slip of paper. Bill, his wife, and their three children must now draw from the box in turn. This time, Bill's wife, Tessie, gets the marked paper. "All right, folks," says Mr. Summers, the man in charge, "Let's finish quickly."
It's only in the final short paragraphs of "The Lottery" that the story turns to outright horror. "The children had stones already," Jackson writes. "And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles." As the stones hit Tessie, she screams "It isn't fair, it isn't right." The story ends with six infamous words: "And then they were upon her."
WINNING THE LOTTERY
The editors at The New Yorker were taken aback when Jackson submitted "The Lottery," but they also appreciated its literary virtues. In the end, the decision to accept it was one vote shy of unanimous.
The public wasn't quite as accepting. People were outraged. The story's reception came as a surprise to Jackson. But mostly, she was appalled by the readers who wanted to know where they could find a lottery to watch themselves.
Good or bad, "The Lottery" had everyone talking. Shirley Jackson had made a name for herself in fiction. Her publisher, Farrar Strauss, hurried to capitalize on the buzz by publishing a collection of her work, The Lottery and Other Stories. To promote the book, Strauss circulated rumors that Jackson had used voodoo to break the leg of publishing rival Alfred J. Knopf, billing her as a practicing witch. In truth, Jackson was known to dabble in mysticism and the occult. She read tarot cards and collected books on witchcraft and magic.
Today, the rumors surrounding Jackson's life and the vitriol over her short story have been largely forgotten. What remains is "The Lottery" itself -the paradigm of a perfectly crafted narrative. While the tale begins on a sunny, summer day, it builds at a ferocious pace, from daydream to nightmare. The writing is tight and compelling, and the story is impossible to forget. As author Jonathon Lethem puts it, "It now resides in the popular imagination as an archetype."
Just as those initial readers were drawn to the piece in spite of their indignation, generations of readers have since been simultaneously horrified and touched by the tale. Authors including Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, Richard Matheson, and Neil Gaiman all credit Shirley Jackson as a source of inspiration, and for decades, "The Lottery" has been taught in middle schools and high schools across America. As author A.M. Holmes pointed out, the story is introduced to students when they are "just waking up to the oddity of things, and the terror that is in everyday life."
Until her death at the age of 48, Shirley Jackson kept writing short stories and novels, including The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which sparked multiple film versions. But it's "The Lottery" for which she's best known. The story has been adapted for radio, television, film, and even ballet. It's been written about and dissected in countless theses, dissertation, and books. And its warnings about the danger of conformity are still relevant. "The Lottery" revealed an uncomfortable truth about the human psyche and, in doing so, became a classic piece of American literature.
__________________________The article by Dan Saltzstein is reprinted from the January-February 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe today to get it delivered to you!
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