Writing Commentary: 'The Lottery'
A short film from 1969 produced by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which dramatizes the famous Shirley Jackson short story, The Lottery, is posted currently on YouTube.
This short film was shown in US English/American literature classes for years. I both read The Lottery and watched this film when I was in -- get this -- fourth grade -- which in the U.S. is the age of nine. Then again, I went to a K-12 Catholic grammar school in the 60s, and they definitely didn't believe in babying children at that time.
For those who've never read it, The Lottery is one of the most famous American short stories ever written. In fact, it's probably the most famous American short story in existence. If you Google it, you can find lots of commentary about What It All Means from amateurs and experts alike.
The plot concerns a small, rural farm community in America. We don't even know its name or what state it's in. The townspeople get together every year on a mid-summer morning for a mysterious celebration called "The Lottery." They make a festive occasion out of it, and look forward to having a community lunch afterward.
The story focuses on a middle-aged housewife named Tessie. As the story opens, Tessie is late for The Lottery celebration because she had to do her breakfast dishes and "didn't want to leave them in the sink" on Lottery Day. The head of every family draws a folded slip of paper from a box. One of the slips -- only one -- is marked with a big, black spot. If the head of household draws that slip, then everyone in the family must draw again, for another slip with a black spot.
As each family head draws their slip, there is banter among the townspeople. Some of them gossip that other communities have stopped holding The Lottery. An elderly man, who is something like the town patriarch, clearly doesn't approve. He quotes a little traditional rhyme: "Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon." Throughout the story, there are casual references that are clues to the famous "twist" ending. The old man quotes his poem, and little boys gather stones.
At the end of the story, Tessie's husband draws the slip with the black spot, and then, when everyone in her family draws again, she draws the black spot. Then, everyone in the town encircles her and stones her to death, including her own children. As the first stone hits her in the head, she cries out: "It's not fair."
Reams have been written debating the exact nature of The Lottery, but most analysts believe it to be some kind of ancient, pagan European sacrifice to ensure a bountiful harvest (i.e., the old man says "Corn be heavy soon.")
Note: the story was first published in The New Yorker in the 1940s. At that time, there were still isolated rural pockets of the U.S. where people spoke archaic European languages like Scottish Gaelic, so the story has an element of believability about it.
What I like about the story is the contrast between the everyday normality of the town and its residents (Tessie carps about doing the dishes), and the horrifying activity of the stoning at the end. Jackson also packs a lot of subtext about human nature into this story that has little to do with the horror genre, especially in the character of Tessie. For example: at the beginning of the story, Tessie is one of the people most enthusiastic about "Lottery Day." She looks forward to the celebration. She only thinks "It's not fair" when she is the one chosen for the sacrifice. If she hadn't been chosen, she would have gleefully tossed stones at someone else without a care. She even tries to put her own, grown-up daughter in danger of being chosen for The Lottery sacrifice.
I also like way Shirley Jackson leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about the characters, the plot and the ending. If she'd explained it all away, as in a conventional horror story, it would have been just another forgotten genre story. The ambiguity is what makes the story a classic--and what also drives more literal-minded readers nuts.
In my own ambitions as a horror writer, I consider Shirley Jackson a role model. I have learned a lot from observing Steven King's writing and plotting skills, but Stevie is not my role model. I want my stories to be about something more than just "horror". My ambition is to some day write a story that's as debated and influential as The Lottery.