Friday, February 21, 2014

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery": A Little Horror Goes a Long Way

This week I had a chance to reread Shirley Jackson's masterful short story, "The Lottery," and to introduce it to a young friend who had never read it before. What a treat that was! I first read it as a teen and carried that chilled, I-can't-believe-what-I-just-read feeling with me for a long time. It was a thrill to read it again. (If you've never read "The Lottery," go here and read it. Then come back. I don't want to spoil any surprises.)

"The Lottery" was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. Although it is considered a classic today, at the time it was widely reviled--to the surprise of both Shirley Jackson and The New Yorker--and was even banned in South Africa. Many readers wrote in to complain about it, and some even canceled their subscriptions. Jackson herself said about it, "Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."

In spite of the initial bad press, "The Lottery" endures to this day as an example of powerful storytelling. No study of the American short story is complete without it.

Why did such a simple story have such an explosive impact? After setting up a cozy, small-town, pastoral scene, it then punches the reader in the stomach with a portrayal of group-think and conformity run amok. Written in a detached, almost journalistic voice, it's a disturbing story, and many readers don't like to be disturbed.

Yes, it's a horrifying story. But what struck me on this reading was how non-graphic it is. Most of the story consists of a description of a small, peaceful New England village and its inhabitants: farmers, small-business owners, housewives, children, all interacting in ordinary ways. As long as anyone remembers, the town has held an annual lottery, as have neighboring towns. Suspense builds as the lottery process unfolds. But when the ending comes, we aren't shown blood or made to witness the result. We are left to our imagination which, as it turns out, does a fine job of scaring us to bits.

Some of today's writers could take a lesson from "The Lottery." It's not always necessary to depict violence in excruciating detail in order to shock or to drive home the point that something terrible has happened. Sometimes just a hint, a suggestion, is enough.

There's a saying in the theater that the more an actor weeps onstage, the less the audience will feel the need to. But an actor who stops on the brink of emotion, who chokes it back, whose voice quavers with unshed tears, will have them crying in the dark in no time. It seems to me that the same goes for books.

The author who lays every grim detail out in the open will not have as powerful effect on the reader's emotions as the author who merely lights the imagination's fuse and then stands back to watch it burn.

What do you think?

Do you remember a short story that affected you deeply? What was it, and how did it make you feel?


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

The story stayed with me forever. We read it in the sixth grade. The idea that the town would be capable of such an act, without thinking, just made my blood run cold. I distinctly remember wondering how Shirley Jackson managed to make the picture so clear. How did she capture the setting so perfectly? I was thoroughly impressed with her writing, all the way back in the sixth grade and still am today. Thank you for this wonderful post.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

The Lottery stayed with me too, never to be forgotten. I have thought of it recently because it reminded me of the new trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, which has a similar theme; but the violence (which is marketed toward teens) is shocking, brutal and unnecessary. Shirley Jackson's simple story is much more powerful.