Characterized by the caprice and fatalism of fairy tales, the fiction of Shirley Jackson exerts a mordant, hypnotic spell. No matter how many times one has read “The Lottery,” Jackson’s most anthologized story and one of the classic works of American gothic literature, one is never quite prepared for its slow-gathering momentum, the way in which what appears initially to be random and casual is revealed to be as inevitable as water circling a drain. As the stark title “The Lottery” suggests an impersonal phenomenon, the story’s perspective is detached and reportorial; a kind of collective consciousness emerges from the inhabitants of a small unnamed New England–seeming town that finds expression in tonally neutral commentary reminiscent of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”:
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born…. Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded, Mr. Summers [the “official” of the lottery] had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations…. At one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year….
This consciousness is as visually selective as a cinematic camera eye, noting
for us, already in the second paragraph, ominous details amid so much that is ordinary, even banal: “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example….”
Though we experience the crucial portion of the story through the eyes of the near-anonymous Mrs. Hutchinson, we never become acquainted with the housewife and mother who is to be sacrificed on the “full-summer day” in late June. Jackson’s protagonist, presumably a longtime resident of the village, should know exactly what is impending, if not for herself then for a neighbor or a relative, yet a curious amnesia seems to define her, as it defines her fellow villagers. A yearly ritual of sacrifice would have traumatized survivors but the families of Jackson’s village seem oddly intact and a vague unease is all that is suggested of trauma; children cheerfully gather stones that they may use to stone their own mothers, as if so abrupt an absence in a household could have no actual consequence. Unlike Jackson’s more subtly modulated and psychologically complex fiction (“The Daemon Lover,” “The Tooth,” “The Lovely House,” The Haunting of Hill…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.