A Controversial Short Story: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Monday, July 1st, 2013 by Susan Gabriel

Shirley JacksonAccording to Writer’s Almanac, Shirley Jackson‘s controversial short story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker sixty-five years ago. When it first appeared, hundreds of readers wrote to the magazine, many of them wanting to cancel their subscriptions because they were so upset by the story. Jackson later wrote:

“On the morning of June 28, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. I was quite casual about it, as I recall — I opened the box, took out a couple of bills and a letter or two, talked to the postmaster for a few minutes, and left, never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic. By the next week, I had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn’t speaking to me.”

If you’re curious how a piece of writing could cause such a reaction, I’ve included the first page below:

From The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 20th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”—eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys, and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.

Soon the men began to gather, surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes. They stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed. The women, wearing faded house dresses and sweaters, came shortly after their menfolk. They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip as they went to join their husbands. Soon the women, standing by their husbands, began to call to their children, and the children came reluctantly, having to be called four or five times. Bobby Martin ducked under his mother’s grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly and took his place between his father and his oldest brother.

The lottery was conducted—as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program—by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities. He was a round-faced, jovial man and he ran the coal business, and people were sorry for him because he had no children and his wife was a scold. When he arrived in the square, carrying the black wooden box, there was a murmur of conversation among the villagers, and he waved and called. “Little late today, folks. ” The postmaster, Mr. Graves, followed him, carrying a three-legged stool, and the stool was put in the center of the square and Mr. Summers set the black box down on it. The villagers kept their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool, and when Mr. Summers said, “Some of you fellows want to give me a hand?” there was a hesitation before two men. Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, came forward to hold the box steady on the stool while Mr. Summers stirred up the papers inside it. (continued)

You can read the entire short story here.  If anything, the public reaction to this story proves the power of fiction, especially when it is written well. Do you think fiction written today could cause such a stir? Have you ever fired off a letter to an author to voice a complaint or an appreciation?

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10 Responses to “A Controversial Short Story: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson”

  1. Barbara Younger Says:

    I was a villager in our 8th grade one act play contest version of “The Lottery.” Perhaps an odd choice for 8th graders (although this was 1968, a less censorial time), but that was one powerful play and experience.

  2. Susan Gabriel Says:

    Hi Barbara,
    Villagers were important roles in that play, I bet. Such a powerful story.

    I was never in a play. The closest I came was as a music major in college when they were casting the elves and fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I missed the height cutoff by one inch! (You had to be 5’2″ or shorter.) I played in the orchestra instead, which was a much better fit for me anyway.

    Thanks for sharing. I love it when you stop by. Happy 4th!

  3. John Grabowski Says:

    > When it first appeared, hundreds of readers wrote to the magazine, many of them
    > wanting to cancel their subscriptions because they were so upset by the story.

    That’s a sure sign you’ve written something good right there.

    Barbara Younger says:

    > I was a villager in our 8th grade one act play contest version of “The Lottery.” Perhaps
    > an odd choice for 8th graders (although this was 1968, a less censorial time), but that
    > was one powerful play and experience.

    I was in 8th grade in 1980 and we did the same thing! It’s sad that yes, today it would probably be deemed unfit, when in fact this is the exact role literature should have in our society–it should disturb us, even the young ‘uns. Look at Grimm’s fairy tales. Now compare Star Wars. It’s informative.

  4. Marylou Says:

    Hi Susan–I don’t know if we are shocked or pushed into action anymore due to the fact that nothing really surprises us in this day and age. A sad reality, for sure. With social media showing just about everything to us on an hourly basis, I think we become numb to the tragedies that surround us. Enough said.

    I have written to an author immediately after finishing his book, “Staring at the Sun.” Irvin Yalom, the author of this masterpiece is one of my favorite writers and I have read all of his books, both novels and non fiction. If you have not enjoyed one of his books, I highly recommend that you give it a shot.

  5. Trelys Says:

    Wow…A gripping story. I can see why people were so upset by it. It mirrored the flaws that they try so desperately to hide. The truth does often, sting… Trelys

  6. Susan Gabriel Says:

    Great comments, everyone! I’d be curious what motivated Shirley Jackson to write this short story. Did she live in a small town? Was she reacting to something? For whatever reason, it is a powerful story that 65 years later we are still talking about! This is what every writer hopes for.

  7. John Grabowski Says:

    My 8th grade teacher said she’d gotten the idea while returning home from grocery shopping, sat down, and wrote it right there in one sitting. I also read in an anthology that she was a practicing witch.

    Wikipedia says, “Jackson’s husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote in his preface to a posthumous anthology of her work that ‘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.'” Reminds me of that piece you sent me recently about authors who prefer not to self-promote over those who shamelessly do.

    You also have to think The Hunger Games, among many other recent “distopian” creations, owes a lot to The Lottery.

  8. Susan Gabriel Says:

    Wow. What an interesting writer. A practicing witch? Something I haven’t tried…. When I reread The Lottery this week, it did make me think of The Hunger Games. Perhaps the author was in a school play, too. The seeds are sown early sometimes. Thanks for the info, John. Fascinating tidbits, as always.

  9. John Grabowski Says:

    I know so many useless things, and don’t know the useful ones.

  10. Susan Gabriel Says:

    Hard to believe that, John. Your comments are some of the most interesting I get. Thanks for that. :)

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