What Can We Steal From Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Lottery,” short story
Author: Shirley Jackson
Date of Work: 1948
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally published in The New Yorker‘s June 26, 1948 issue.  You can also find the story in a ton of anthologies.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Tone

Discussion:
I know…I know.  Your ninth-grade English teacher made you read “The Lottery.”  Just because it was forced upon you at gradepoint doesn’t mean that it’s not awesome.  The story describes the morning of June 27th, the morning during which the lottery is to take place.  Every seems downright wholesome and perfect in this community.  Mr. Summers organizes civic activities for everyone: square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program.  Isn’t it beautiful?  All of the families in the village are getting together on a clear and sunny summer morning to share a timeless tradition.  What could be more perfect?  Oh…right.  The person who reaches into the lottery box and pulls out the slip of paper with the big black spot gets stoned to death by everyone else.  (Can you believe we make teenagers read this story?)

Shirley Jackson establishes the tone very quickly, inviting the reader to think about happy, comfortable things.  There’s a bright blue sky over a rustic town, the kind of place where tradition and family are cornerstones.  Jackson immediately informs us that it’s the day of the lottery.  “Lottery” sounds like a good thing, right?  The Oxford English Dictionary points out that the word “lottery” has been used to describe the distribution of prizes by chance since at least 1567.  Ooh, somebody is going to win something!  Cool!  As the 300 townspeople gather, they gossip and the kids run around and gather with stones.

Jackson creates great suspense in the story by painting a perfectly normal image and then providing small details that make the reader uncomfortable.  Mrs. Hutchinson is late to the lottery drawing and a few people in the crowd inform Mr. Hutchinson that his wife has just arrived.  What’s the big deal?  You can still win the New York State Lottery if you don’t watch the live drawing, right?  Mrs. Dunbar volunteers to take the place of her husband in the drawing instead of giving her son that extra chance.  Why would a mother try to prevent her son from winning?  We learn that some communities have stopped doing a lottery; Old Man Warner calls them fools.  That sounds harsh, right?

Whoa, then everyone (except for Mrs. Hutchinson) lets out a relieved sigh when they see they didn’t win.  Why would they be happy to lose the lottery?  Half a page before the story ends, people start pelting Mrs. Hutchinson with stones.  The moment is powerful because Jackson has withheld a lot of details, allowing the important ones to stand out.  The wise narrator also chooses not to pass judgment on any of the events; this lottery is a normal part of life in this town and it’s up to the reader to understand they’re getting a glimpse into a slightly different world.

“The Lottery” ratchets up the tension by adhering to the Unities (Time, Place and Tone). Our attention is focused on the lottery and the many reactions to it.  We don’t have a chance to breathe because Jackson never cuts away from the events that lead to the sad conclusion.  The story begins as people start to gather for the lottery and ends as “they were upon her.”

What Should We Steal?

  • Adhere to the Unities to keep the focus on the small slice of life you’re depicting. Would we love to know more about Mrs. Hutchinson and her relationship with her husband?  (Why doesn’t the guy try to save his wife?)  What do the surviving husbands and wives say to each other that night?  How does a parent react when their child is chosen as the winner?  Yes, these answers might be interesting, but Jackson leaves us with a spine-tingling chill by leaving those questions (and others) open to the answers provided by our imaginations.
  • Employ a calm narrator and choose details very carefully.  Remember, the narrator is not necessarily the writer.  In fact, the two are generally very different.  Thomas Harris is very much opposed to men who keep women in a well and force them to coat themselves in lotion so they can make a woman suit from the hides.  The narrator of The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t, however, spent several pages pointing out that Buffalo Bill’s actions are abhorrent.  Instead, Harris tells you Clarice’s story and allows you to pass whatever judgment you like.

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