Book review: The Lottery, and other stories, by Shirley Jackson, 1949

I haven’t checked but I think this may well be the first collection of short stories I have reviewed in over 400 posts. That must at least be in part because I focused on the Guardian’s top 100 novels for a long time, but it is probably also a comment on the limitations of the short story as a literary form. Most publishers, even in this case, feel compelled to gather them together in a quasi-novel format of approximate novel length.

Having said that, this collection works well as a whole, and the use of The Lottery as a conclusion gives the whole text a strong collective punch. The Lottery is by far Jackson’s best known short story, and rightly so – it is an extraordinary, bleak portrait of rural America descended into a controlled, ritualistic form of Taliban-style barbarism. The citizens of a small, unnamed farming community gather on 27th June for a traditional ceremony involving the drawing of lots, the purpose of which is only fully revealed in the story’s closing lines. The ceremony is a harvest sacrifice – “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” – of the kind practised by primitive societies. Whilst the story is chillingly bleak, there is some hope offered in the asides that confirm that some communities are abandoning what is obviously a long-established tradition of human sacrifice by stoning to death.

Originally published in 1948 The Lottery revealed the potential for savagery lurking under the veneer of civilisation in America. I understand it is read widely in American schools, although in the UK it is not, by comparison, well known. If I was teaching English teenagers I would definitely use this powerful exploration of how we in the West think of ourselves as so advanced but how we are just one step away from the jungle. The tiny details in The Lottery are what give it its power – the calm, bucolic portrait of the villagers gathering in good cheer, chatting quietly to one another about this and that, the officials fussing about getting things underway, and then slowly the panic builds as the lottery starts.

I am sure this point has been made many times before, but there are strong echoes between The Lottery and The Hunger Games. Instead of a simple sacrifice the later novel uses the concept of a lottery as the starting point for a to-the-death gladiatorial contest, but the random selection of an ordinary person chosen for the sacrifice is such a powerful concept that I can understand why Collins would have been inspired by it.

None of the other short stories in this collection feature such a gruesome turn of events as that in The Lottery. They are mainly set in domestic, suburban settings, in which housewives, often newly wed or with small children, struggle to settle into new homes. Usually there is a sinister undertone to the stories, a sense of repressed threat which finally explodes in the Lottery, thus justifying its place at the climax of the collection. Sometimes the stories are simply sketches of brief if unsettling incidents, such as The Witches, in which an old man on a train disturbs a family with inappropriately gruesome reference to witchcraft. Other longer stories feature women past their prime living lives of quiet desperation, with the minutiae of everyday life becoming oppressive.

Jackson links these 25 stories thematically and in terms of their setting – they all seem to take place at roughly the same period of time, and in the same middle-American setting. They are linked further by the use of the same name for several characters across the different stories – indeed the original title of the collection was going to be ‘The Lottery and the Adventures of James Harris’. This unsettles the reader – are we following different events in the lives of the characters, or unrelated stories featuring people who just happen to share a common name? Is there any continuity between the stories? This is a world in which the supernatural still lurks beneath the surface of everyday life, a world where the memory of Salem Witch trials still troubles, and where people believe in daemons.

Jackson is a fine stylist. Not a word is wasted. If you want to dip into her work The Lottery is a great if atypical starting point, but I would recommend this collection as a more representative selection of her writing.

4 thoughts on “Book review: The Lottery, and other stories, by Shirley Jackson, 1949

  1. Sounds like The Lottery could have inspired the film The Wicker Man (although most people say it was the novel The Ritual by David Pinner). I love short stories (I grew up reading the short stories of HG Wells and Edgar Allan Poe) and it always amazes me how they seem to be looked down on as a poor cousin of the novel!
    By the way, I keep meaning to read some Shirley Jackson, it sounds like she writes exactly my kind of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really liked ‘The Country of the Blind’, ‘The Door in the Wall’, ‘The Magic Shop’, ‘The New Accelerator’, although that’s mainly remembered from when I read them as a teenager, so who knows!

    Liked by 1 person

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