Shirley Jackson has written several short stories and published a number of other works but none has ever generated so much reaction and recognition that propelled her to infamy and secured for her a place in American literature than “The Lottery”. After its first publication in the New Yorker in 1948 letters came pouring in by the hundreds demanding foremost an explanation for the disquieting and unusual story with which the story is threshed out in all its macabre plenitude. Shirley Jackson responded later with an essay detailing the reason for her sudden popularity. Commenting part and explaining in whole why the public seem to attach talismanic importance to the horror of the lottery she says that it is largely due to the natural desire for unraveling the exotic and the barbaric features of civilized societies (“Biography of a Story”, Jackson).
The lottery is a symbolism for that unspoken reality of tyranny and inhumanity prevailing over the whole gamut of the then existing democratic institution which partake the nature an unquestioned tradition established over time. It is hardly surprising that “The Lottery” has been regarded more for its shocking and frightful values than for its thematic exposition of the backwardness of certain communities over their supposedly refined culture. Initial reactions were directed towards the brute and incredulous methods of sacrifice as a ritual.
The public took alarm over the possibility that such a practice is still being done in other parts of the country. Public lynching against an individual drawn out in random as well as the infliction of the penalty of death for no reason at all assuredly harangued the conscience of the readers (Jackson 23). Certainly at a day and age of increased awareness and protection for civil liberties it seemed anachronistic to suggest anything of that sort.
Yet precisely because the story borders on incredulity and cruelty, aggravated by the apparent dead-pan and as-a-matter-of-fact narrative tone, published during the heyday of improving community standards, the public missed its satirical and literary aspects producing fear, anger and utter helplessness as a result. While the audience faulted the participants in the ritual sacrifice in the story for their ignorance, it is the same brand of ignorance which drove the readers to react as they did.
Only this time Shirley Jackson bore the entire brunt of the powerful and ruling compact majority backed by their numbers and shared belief for the ideals of a civilized society. Although the history of the ritual of the lottery has not been revealed in full it is perhaps safe to surmise that it is no different from the root cause of the response towards the story itself by readers and critics who have violently cast their animated opinions and (mis-)interpretations over it. Shirley Jackson was only eager to oblige her detractors as the very human nature she seeks to magnify is brought to fruition by the way people reacted to the story.
This is not to say that the author was moved by the intention to expose the defects of a democracy by creating a story which would consequently reflect society and its barbarism with the characters in the story and the readers for then risking her career on that point would be taking things too far. In fact, Shirley Jackson was disheartened with the way her story has been attacked by its readers.
She did not expect that “millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open” (“Biography of a Story”, Jackson). However, it is clear that the author wanted to shake things up a bit and in causing a slight disturbance produced the same evil of public hate which under-gird the story. By cutting to the core of the foundations of society people’s sense of security has been inevitably stirred to a point of outright rage and consternation.
Eventually the same security or the lack thereof has evolved in time to a sense of complete confidence and faith in the social institutions that the first salvo of criticisms has been replaced with an appreciation for what the story seeks to present. In this newly founded confidence in society, people felt little anger and rage. Instead, they have developed both interest and satisfaction with the story one for its novel and the unusual plot and the other, for the fact that they do not or shall never live in a community where they will, up one point, face death in the fashion of the lottery.
Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus
& Giroux, 1995.
– – – . “Biography of a Story.” Shirley Jackson’s the Lottery. Accessed on 6 May 2008