“The Lottery” is such a simple banal title, it really doesn’t fire your imagination as a reader. So, when I first read about Shirley Jackson and found out that her short story published in “The New Yorker” in 1948 had invited a flurry of reader letters expressing anger, disdain and horror, it got me curious.
The story is available to read on “The New Yorker” and I finally got around to going through it. Like the title, it starts off mundane – everybody in town is gathered to partake in an annual ritual of picking up chits for the lottery, a practice meant for ensuring a good harvest. Set in a small town on a summer day, Shirley’s story reads a little like those tedious Thomas Hardy novels, where the writer painstakingly describes each detail of the scene to help conjure up a vivid image in the reader’s head, even if it comes at the cost of boring some of them. However, Shirley Jackson deliberately lulls you into a sense of slow-boredom, before hitting you with an unexpected climax.
I guess it’s easy to imagine why readers in 1948 would be so outraged to read a story like “The Lottery” – because they probably didn’t have many contemporary shocking dystopian tales to compare it with. Shirley Jackson’s plot unfolds in the times of civilized society, where there’s law and order, yet there are certain practices that lay bare the violently absurd nature of humans. What makes the story slightly timeless is the fact that there aren’t many hints to the actual timeline of when the ritual takes place, a filmmaker could might as well adapt the tale and set it against any year they want – 1648, 1848, 2048 – with minor tweaks. In-fact, keeping the story as contemporary as possible is what makes the ending seem surprising.
If you’ve never read Shirley Jackson, start with ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.
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