Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” – it wasn’t as easy as she claimed.


Between the playpen and the frozen vegetables? Not.

We missed June 27, the official day Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery” takes place.  It’s a counterpart to Bloomsday earlier in the month, on June 16.  You know the story:  In a small-time American town, citizens gather every year to implore an unnamed force to grant a good corn harvest. The citizens draw slips of paper from a wooden box to select a victim for human sacrifice. A young mother draws the losing card, and is stoned to death by the community.  The end.

Hundreds of letters poured into the New Yorker when it was first published in 1948.  What did the story mean?  According to her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, “she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years.”

That’s not quite true.  She told the San Francisco Chronicle a month after the story was published:  “Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And how was the story written?  According to Jackson, speaking at a lecture, “I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft.”

The single change was a request from the  New Yorker editor who reviewed the first draft, who asked “that the date mentioned in the story be changed to coincide with the date of the issue of the magazine in which the story would appear, and I said of course.”

That’s not quite true, either.  William Brennan‘s article in Slate, which came out last month in time for Lottery Day, corrects the record, after he made a trip to the Library of Congress, which holds Jackson’s records.  You can read the list of his discoveries in “How Shirley Jackson Wrote ‘The Lottery'” here.

Here’s something I didn’t know.  Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House, which was adapted in the Robert Wise film The Haunting, with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom.  Scared the bejeebers out of me when I was an imaginative little kid. I’ve refused to go to horror movies ever since.

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One Response to “Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” – it wasn’t as easy as she claimed.”

  1. Sam Gwynn Says:

    I’ve never had any problems teaching the story, and I’m always amazed at how it apparently caused so many queries at the time. It’s a story about rituals–the kinds of things we do on Valentine’s Day, Passover, Easter, May Day (lost these days), Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, et al. Many ancient societies had human sacrifices as part of their rituals; the Greeks refined this into the ritual sacrifice of a goat (which is where we get tragedy). We perform the same sacrificial rituals with little sense of what they mean, and much less of what they originally meant. Jackson imaginatively proposed an isolated community where one of these ancient fertility rites had managed to survive. I suggest watching the opening scenes of Pasolini’s brilliant “Medea,” which capture the past where the rituals may have come from.