The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1949)

The lottery by Shirley Jackson

“The Lottery” (1948) is Shirley Jackson‘s best-known short story; it could be argued it’s her most famous classic — even more widely read than The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Once published, the story quickly catapulted her to fame— or, more accurately, notoriety. 

Jackson wrote it only three weeks before its publication in the The New Yorker, “on a bright summer morning as I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller.” “The Lottery” is the story of a fictional small town that hosts a ghastly annual stoning ritual. Elaine Showalter describes it in A Jury of Her Peers:

“Set in a small New England town like North Bennington [where the Jackson-Hyman family lived], ‘The Lottery’ is about ritual sacrifice and scapegoating. One person in the community is selected by lot each summer to be publicly stoned to death. Jackson made readers uncomfortable not only through the matter-of-fact violence of the story — even the victim’s little son has his pebbles ready — but also through implicitly questioning American innocence after the war: Would we too be ‘good Germans,’ going along with atrocity?”

A controversial story from the start

The story earned rave reviews from editors and critics though readers weren’t as pleased. Quickly becoming the most controversial story ever published by The New Yorker, readers not only canceled subscriptions but sent hate mail to the author via the magazine. “Millions of people, and my mother had taken a pronounced dislike to me,” Jackson claimed.

The story was first published under the titled The Lottery, or the Adventures of James Harris. James Harris appears as a character in about half of the stories, which links them to one another. Contemporary editions market the collection more simply as The Lottery and Other Stories. In the wonderful biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin observed:

“The story, with shades of The Scarlett Letter, unfolds in Jackson’s signature plain style, which is perhaps what fooled some of its initial readers into believing it was fact. Much of it is devoted to a deceptively simple account of exactly how the ritual is conducted. 

Jackson sets the scene with her usual economy, depicting how the children, out of school for the summer, gather first, the boys horsing around and choosing ‘the smoothest and roundest stones’ to fill their pockets. The men assemble next, ‘surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes,’ followed by the women, ‘wearing faded house dresses and sweaters … They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip as they wend to join their husbands.’

Tessie Hutchinson arrives late; distracted by her housework, she forgot what day it was. ‘Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you?’ she jokes. The details and the dialogue are virtually timeless; were it not for the reference to tractors, these villagers could be residents of Puritan Boston, gathered to witness the punishment of Hester Prynne.”

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Shirley Jackson

Learn more about Shirley Jackson
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Despite the revulsion that greeted “The Lottery” when it first appeared (it was even banned in some quarters), it has become one of the most anthologized short stories of twentieth-century American literature and a staple of high school English curricula. Here’s a typical review from 1949, the year when the book first came out:

 

A 1949 review of The Lottery

From the original review in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil of The Lottery, or the Adventures of James Harris by Shirley Jackson, April, 1949:

Shirley Jackson, author of a volume of short stories entitled The Lottery, or the Adventures of James Harris, is 28. When she looks back on her young life, she says, it seems a “very short and perplexing” time, but when she goes back to the beginning and tries to look ahead, “it turns into novels.”

She has one novel published, The Road Through the Wall. Wife of Stanley Edgar Hyman, the author of The Armed Vision, she lives in North Bennington, Vermont, near Bennington College where her husband used to teach. They have two daughters and a son, and live in a 14-room house, where Miss Jackson dislikes the housework but does it because no one else will.

Twenty-five short stories, of which ten are reprinted from magazines, comprise this collection. One or two of them misfire, others testify to a talent which ranges from good to remarkable, and three or four of these stories strongly tempt me to use the word genius.

To begin by finding fault: Miss Jackson is not a stylist, that is to say, not skillful, or perhaps merely not interested, in the brilliant phrase. Once in a while she finishes off a story with an idea that is sympathetic to her but that has not developed inevitable; an example is “The Renegade” which starts out about a dog and ends too unexpectedly in a woman’s terror at imagined decapitation. And in one or two other cases, as in “Elizabeth,” it is less a story than a mood.

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The Haunting of Hill House

You might also like: A review of The Haunting of Hill House

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“The Witch” will curdle your blood, though it is, by an odd contrast, funny too. But the indubitable masterpiece is “The Lottery,” which comes mercifully at the end of the book when you have had some change to harden yourself to the tremendous impact of some of these tales, in which menacing is piled on ominous to the point of unbelievable catastrophe.

It’s a story of villagers gathering in a lighthearted spirit for an annual event that looks at first as innocent as a picnic.

But there’s an underlying tension, the excitement of the fathers and mothers and young people drawing lots grows threateningly, and at the very least you are terror-stricken. It is black magic. It puts the hex on you. Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick.

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The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery and Other Stories on Amazon

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More about “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

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