Tag: dystopian literature

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:

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.

What Can We Steal From Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Harrison Bergeron,” short story
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Date of Work: 1961
Where the Work Can Be Found: Just about every anthology of short stories ever.  It’s one of the big stories, folks.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Well, if you haven’t read this short story, you should.  I know…I know.  It’s one of those stories they force you read in high school.  Here’s the deal: “Harrison Bergeron” is an incredibly subversive story that is practically screaming at you to DEFY AUTHORITY.  Can you believe so many high school teachers (including my own) were trying to tell you that there are many forces in American society that strive to glorify mediocrity?  That one of the overriding messages in American media is that you should sit down, shut up and watch crappy TV shows so you won’t think?  You have to give Vonnegut some love.

“Harrison Bergeron” describes the Bergeron’s family night of television.  Hazel and George, Harrison’s parents, watch a music and dance show.  The Handicapper General makes sure that everyone is “equal” by burdening the strong with heavy weights.  The brilliant people are forced to endure periodic aural disturbances so as to prevent them from thinking brilliant thoughts.  The ballerinas (masked to hide their unfair beauty) are plodding about when there is breaking news: Harrison Bergeron, “a genius and athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as completely dangerous.”  Harrison, the smartest and most athletic of us, breaks into the TV studio and removes his handicaps.  He declares himself “Emperor” and chooses his bride, the most beautiful of all the ballerinas.  Diana Moon Glampers, that Handicapper General, interrupts their honeymoon dance, killing them both.  Hazel and George?  They remember they saw something sad on TV, but can’t quite remember what it was.

The narrator of “Harrison Bergeron” is a big key to the story’s success.  Vonnegut is dealing with BIG emotions and BIG ideas, but the narrator is very calm and matter-of-fact.  “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”  If you look at the narrator’s sentences, they are very calm.  The narrator does not pass judgment on Diana Moon Glampers or the society she leads.  Instead, Vonnegut allows the reader to absorb the events and the dialogue and to draw his or her own conclusions.

It’s so tempting to make our narrators editorialize.  For example, I am writing a short story about a teenager who befriends a former major league ballplayer who played with men who had been in the Negro Leagues.  It is VERY EASY to want to editorialize in these kinds of cases.  How could Americans want to see segregated baseball?  What kind of a person would want to discriminate so blatantly against people based upon skin color?  What could have been?  Bob Feller facing Josh Gibson…Satchel Paige against Joe DiMaggio.  Instead, it is better to pull back and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.  It’s a matter of SHOW, DON’T TELL.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Consider an unobtrustive narrator to allow your points emerge from other parts of your writer’s toolbox.  Vonnegut’s narrator pretty much sticks to just the facts, ma’am.  This allows the dialogue to punch the reader in the gut.  Why can’t George simply reduce the weights that are part of his prescribed handicap?  “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George.  “I don’t call that a bargain.” The narrator could easily have given us this information in this clumsy manner: “The government prescribed that the strong be weighed down according to their strength.  George could have reduced the weight in his handicap, but then he would have been punished with prison time and a big fine for each ball of birdshot…blah blah blah.”  See how bad that is?  (And not just because I wrote it instead of Vonnegut.)
  • Allow your narrator to match the needs of your story.  George Bergeron is a brilliant man (that’s where his son gets it), but he’s unable to concentrate because of the periodic sounds that derail his trains of thought.  For example, George “began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.”  George and the narrator are both unable to focus upon the emotions inherent in the story because of the handicaps placed upon them.