by Darlene Cah
I had to read “The Lottery” in one of my high school English classes. At the time, I was more interested in dragging paint across a silk screen with a squeegee than thinking about the deep meaning of stories. Not that I wasn’t interested in English. I loved it. It was easy for me, so I kind of slid by. I could write my way out of most assignments (history, not so much).
I remember loving Shirley Jackson’s story, mostly because it was entertaining, suspenseful and it had a very cool twist ending. Yes, the shock ending. That, in particular, I thought was the mark of a great story.
Well, I still think it’s a great story, but reading “The Lottery” years later, after leaving the paint, ink and markers behind and turning my attention to writing, so many details become obvious. Now, I’m not going to do an in depth critical analysis of the story. Frankly, I’m not that smart. And besides, anyone can find that information with a quick Google search. What I can do is simply talk about my impressions.
Often we experience events in our lives and when we look back at the whole picture, we see clearly how we got to the place where we ended up. Jackson leaves dozens of clues throughout the opening of the story that are easily overlooked until the ending is revealed and we reread the story. She does this masterfully and seamlessly. Nothing seems terribly out of the ordinary. Yet, these simple actions and observations turn morbid by the end, causing us to look at them in a completely different way. They’re no longer innocent. They’re deadly.
The narrative starts out on a “clear and sunny” day, a direct contrast to the dark events that soon will unfold. Boys, being boys, collect stones. The event of the lottery is put in the same category as square dances and the Halloween program, just another community celebration. Mr. Summers, who has a coal business (kind of like stones, eh?), conducted them all. One of the first hints that something is not quite right occurs when Mr. Graves (the name itself is revealing!) brings out the black box, and the villagers keep their distance from the box. And when Summers asks for help, there’s a hesitation. Jackson uses the word “nervously” to describe the villagers several times. A lottery is supposed to be a good thing. People could win big! At least, that’s what I tell myself when I buy a Powerball ticket!
The larger theme, that the younger me would never have seen is that of tradition. The Lottery is a yearly tradition, but no one really knows how and why it started. Everyone just follows along. I remember when “Think outside the box” was the big catch phrase in business. Yet, innovative ideas were often shot down. The kiss of death (pathetic reference to “The Lottery” intended!) was when someone in a meeting said, “Because this is the way we’ve always done it.” That was when you knew your job was to toe the line and not make waves. The villagers in “The Lottery” seem set in their ways, and though nervous and hesitant, they won’t break ranks. In fact, once the target is chosen, they feed off each other, turning into a vicious mob. Even the young child Davey is handed a few pebbles to stone his mother to death. Then everyone goes back to their everyday lives.
Jackson alludes to many other traditions in the story: religion, family, the roles of men and women in society.
And about that twist ending? Most creative writing teachers advise students against this device because it can leave the reader feeling cheated or tricked. I think that’s true. I would be angry if I invested time in a story only to find that what I believed all along was a lie. In the case of “The Lottery,” Jackson leads us up to the ending from the very first paragraph. She doesn’t mislead or manipulate us. She guides us, leaves us little breadcrumbs, so the twist at the end is organic. We don’t see it coming, but somehow it’s expected.