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The Lottery: Bio of a Story
by Deborah Markus

ou'd never guess from the name what a wallop the ending of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" packs. This contrast between title and content is so solid that many people who have in fact read the story won't always know what you mean at first if you bring it up in casual conversation. You may need to prompt their memories with some subtle hints -- being careful not to go into too much detail, since it's possible that they really haven't read the story and it would be a crime to ruin it for them. "It's -- you know -- the one about the villagers and, um, some rocks...?"


Reactions aren't always quite so strong, of course. But shock, unease, and even anger are common responses to this widely read and often misunderstood work.

So just what is "The Lottery"? And why is it so scary?

"The Lottery" is the most famous short story that Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) ever wrote. In fact, Jackson is often defined as the author of "The Lottery", as if she never wrote anything else (or at least anything of import). "I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published," she said in "Biography of a Story," "there would be people who would not forget my name."

Which is as it should be, but it is equally true that had Jackson never written "The Lottery" she would nevertheless be well worth reading. She was equally master of short story and novel, of humor and horror. The Haunting of Hill House is her best-known long work -- not because it's necessarily her best novel (opinions differ, and if you want mine I think We Have Always Lived in the Castle beats it hands down), but because it can easily be categorized as a horror novel -- a haunted house story. The rest of her books are so resistant to ready descriptives that they are rewarded for their staunch individualism by fading frequently out of print.

Shirley Jackson was a writer who did not like to explain her work, clearly feeling that she'd more than done her part by creating the stuff in the first place. So anyone looking for the deeper meaning in "The Lottery" will be disappointed by her own (admittedly disingenuous) insistence that "it was just a story I wrote." The idea for it came to her, she said, just a few weeks before she sold it to The New Yorker. (Galley proof marginalia insists otherwise, but Jackson never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as she was the first to admit in another essay about writing.) She was pushing her baby stroller one warm morning, thinking about what she would write later, and "perhaps," she said wryly, "the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story."


At any rate, she continued, she went home and put her daughter in her playpen and the frozen food somewhere it wouldn't thaw out. (Such homey details warm much of Jackson's writing, incidentally; in fact, the two most blatantly terrifying of her novels, The Haunting and We Have, are overflowing with accounts of tea and baking and gardening and strawberries in the sun. An especially scary chapter of The Haunting involves nothing more violent or horrifying than -- get ready -- a family picnic. No one is threatened, nothing bad happens, and you just about scream reading it. Trust me. Or rather, don't trust me at all. Pony up for the damned book and find out the hard way that I know whereof I speak.)

Having dutifully tended to the domestic side of her life, then, Jackson sat down to work. The story "went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause." So much so, in fact, that the story she finally sent to her agent the next day (again, these dates are in doubt -- for more about evidence that she had in fact completed the story several weeks earlier than she indicates in her essay, please see Joan Wylie Hall's Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction) "was almost word for word the original draft." (Also in question, but not nearly so much as the dates -- again, see Hall.) Jackson felt very strongly that, though the story might not be perfect, she "didn't want to fuss with it." It seemed to stand very well, aside from a few small word tweaks here and there. Like Athena, born perfect and armed for battle straight from her parent's skull.

"The Lottery" may not have flowed out of Jackson's pen quite so quickly or easily as she insisted it had, but she stressed the speed and ease of its composition so often that there must be more than a grain of truth in her claims. This channeled quality is itself a clue to the story's appeal, and to its horror. The work is so completely, easily, originally true that the idea of Jackson sitting down and typing it out in a bare few hours' time, as she said she did, isn't implausible.

It's pointless to wonder where or how she got the idea for it. Her husband, the literary critic and author Stanley Edgar Hyman, knew a thing or two about myth and folklore, having written among other works The Tangled Bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud as Imaginative Writers. She herself told an old professor of hers that his folklore course could take all the credit for the story. The anti-Semitism she encountered after her marriage (her husband was Jewish, and they lived in an extremely villagey small town) certainly contributed something to the story, as no doubt too did the fact that it was written in 1948. Hannah Arendt may have coined the phrase "banality of evil," but Jackson made it talk.

Like all great ideas, though, that of "The Lottery" seemed to get its author rather than the other way around, and we may all be thankful that she was in the right place at the right time to be seized. Certainly Jackson's own origin story for the writing of "The Lottery" is far more feasible than her husband's. He insisted that she left a slow bridge game and scribbled it out in a frenzied twenty minutes or so, which surpasses the physically possible even if we disregard the mental effort involved in even a fast and easy scribble session.

The quiet ease and pleasure with which "The Lottery" was written are in stark contrast to the reactions it has garnered. From the very beginning of its life in print, "The Lottery" has been disturbing its readers, and provoking endless discussion. Its very simplicity seems to be most baffling to those struggling to understand Jackson's "serious, straightforward story" (as she herself described it).

So vividly and simply real is the story and its setting that many of the readers who wrote to Jackson demanding clarification (and there were many, many readers who wrote, and to the end of Jackson's life they never stopped) took it for granted that such lotteries took place. "What they wanted to know," Jackson said, "was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch." American readers wanted to know which state they were held in (not their own, surely!); Canadians and the occasional Brit were merely curious as to whether those wacky Americans did indeed practice such bizarre customs. The best letter in this category came from a Los Angeles reader, who wrote with a breathtaking understatement Jackson must have adored: "I have read of some queer cults in my time, but this one bothers me."

Then there were (as there still are) those who thought that there must be more to the story than meets the eye. The letters Jackson received in this vein deserve an entire column to themselves; a representative sampling must suffice, but any reader who wants more is urged to get a copy of Come Along With Me and read the rest.

(from Virginia): The only thing that occurs to me is that perhaps the author meant we should not be too hard on our presidential nominees.

(from Illinois): A symbol of how village gossip destroys a victim?

(from Maine): I suppose that about once every so often a magazine may decide to print something that hasn't any point just to get people talking.

(from Missouri): You printed it. Now give with the explanations.

(from Connecticut): I thought that it might have been a small-scale representation of the sort of thing involved in the lottery which started the functioning of the selective-service system at the start of the last war.

(from New York): Is it a publicity stunt?

(from Missouri): In this story you show the perversion of democracy.

(from California): Please tell us it was all in fun.

(from Venezuela): I have read the story twice and from what I can gather all a man gets for his winnings are rocks in his head, which seems rather futile.

It's easy and fun to laugh at those who either inflict meanings of their own on a story quite meaningful enough already or dilute a great and greatly disturbing work with their own ideas in order to make themselves more comfortable with a comfortless proposal. At least, however, those quoted above actually tried to make something of a story that disturbed as much as it baffled them, or disturbed exactly because it baffled them. Some, equally in the dark, chose to lash out instead and heap abuse on the author's head. "I will not," Jackson said in introduction to a generous selection of these missives, "try now to say what I think of people who write nasty letters to other people who just write stories. I will only read some of their comments." Let us follow her good example.

(from Canada): Tell Miss Jackson to stay out of Canada.

(from Massachusetts): I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like "The Lottery."

(from Minnesota): "The Lottery" seems to me to be in incredibly bad taste. I read it while soaking in the tub and was tempted to put my head under water and end it all.

(California; this, as Jackson herself notes, from "a world-famous anthropologist," though she doesn't say which one): If the author's intent was to symbolize into complete mystification and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded.

(from Missouri, to the editor of The New Yorker): Perhaps you as editor are proud of publishing a story that reached a new low in human viciousness. The burden of proof is up to you when your own preoccupation with evil leads you into such evil ways.

(from Illinois): Even to be polite I can't say that I liked "The Lottery."

Well. At least that last one was trying to be polite.

"The Lottery" is a lot like life -- there's no easy answer to the constantly-asked question of its meaning, probably because there's a flaw in the original inquiry. The truth of "The Lottery" is devastatingly simple in its contradictory brilliance: yes, this is "just a story"; yes, this is true. Jackson was a genius of a writer, especially in the short-story mode, but it isn't her gifts alone that make this story so completely convincing. This feels real because it is real. Not in the hokey sense of "it could really happen!" but in the sense that every reader feels, however dimly, a startlement that is born of recognition. We know the truth when we see it. Whether we'll admit that truth even to ourselves is another matter.

There are pieces of meaning that can be chipped off and held up for inspection, expounded and expanded. The power of tradition, for example, can be an infinitely destructive one by people who value tradition in and of itself and therefore won't question just what it is they traditionally do. Institutionalized evil committed by ordinary, more or less unmalicious people is more terrifying than isolated acts of violence by those society can single out as monsters. Fine. Great. All very well and good, especially if you're trying to write a term paper. But the fact is, Jackson was right in refusing to even attempt to explain "The Lottery," because any such explanation would have sounded as ridiculous as one of the letters she quoted with such glee. Truth, simple truth spread out in front of you, needs no explanation.

The word angel used to mean merely "messenger." Jackson was a dark angel whose job in the case of "The Lottery" was completed as soon as she finished typing its last words. Our job is to read, and be frightened, and keep reading and keep being frightened. And not worry so much about "understanding" the damned story. There was one group of people that Shirley Jackson considered to have understood completely what "The Lottery" was all about. That was the population, or at any rate the rulemakers, of the Union of South Africa. Their response to the story was to ban it. Jackson was very proud of that. Let's give her something to be prouder of by keeping it in print and ourselves in wonder.