The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (Short Fiction review)

Saturday, March 31, 2012


With the Hunger Games hype that engulfed us last week, it was hard to avoid all the discussion of similar works that existed. Of the many titles that I came across, two stood out particularly - a short story called The Lottery and a Japanese novel (and movie) called Battle Royale (which I'm reading right now and just cannot put down). The novel will be fodder for another post, so for now, I just want to rave about the awesomeness that was The Lottery.

In contemporary America, villagers across the country are gathering on the 27th of June (and some a day earlier) for an annual event called the Lottery. Children, women, men, all come to the main square of their village or town, where the lottery master keeps a black box full of paper chips. One of these chips is marked has a special mark on it to identify the winner (the person who draws that chip). Not everyone draws however, but only the head of the family. Husbands are viewed as the head of their families/households, and if the husband is absent for some reason, a son above the age of sixteen will be the head. If there is no son, then the wife can be the family head, but of course, she is questioned publicly about whether she didn't have any son who met that criteria before they accepted her for the drawing. There is an air of excitement and nervousness and the general first impression is that of willful acceptance. The lottery begins, and it is then we begin to see some interesting reactions. The winner isn't too happy, but the others are giddy with relief and insistent on the following through with traditions.

Can I begin by saying just how much this story blew my mind? I had heard that it was awesome, and that when it was first published, there was such strong reaction to it - many of them negative of course. On a side note, it's fascinating how people then ridiculed the story and sent the author a lot of hate mail (stuff like this happens now too) but our first reaction is varying degrees of acceptance.

Anyways, like I said, I was totally blown away, even though I knew there was something evil going to happen in the story (which isn't revealed until the very end). But more than that, I loved how multidimensional the story is. The author leaves a lot of hints through the story, so that when I reached the end, I couldn't say that it sprung up on me. The evidence was there all along, but the kind of evidence you don't think twice about, but later makes you go - oh my god, how did I miss that?

But mostly, I loved the people characterizations. The beginning of the story almost gives the impression that this is a million dollar lottery. People were somewhat excited. But there was also an air of restraint - an indication that there is something wrong with this happy American picture - as if people wanted to be there and not be there as well. A few men talk about how the lottery is being canceled in a few towns, and the oldest man in this village scoffs at that, saying it's the young people to blame for that, and that the lottery is the best thing that ever happened. But when the lottery winner is revealed, the winner alone cries how unfair it is despite how participating that person was earlier.

And despite how much I sat expecting something crazy to happen, I was still shocked at the ending.

The short of it: Super short story - you guys just have to read it. And let me know if you didn't like it.


I read this story online on the Classic Short Stories.


19 comments:

Kate Towery said...

I'm am so glad you're reading Battle Royale!  I read it a long time ago, after watching the movie that's based on it and I've tried to get other people to read it because it's what made me want to read Hunger Games.  And I usually refer to both Battle Royale and The Lottery when I try to explain HG to people.  Although I confess, I haven't read The Lottery yet, but I was in the play back in high school.  I promise to try to read it soon though!  Can't wait for your review of Battle Royale (and I'm so glad I can buy a real copy of the movie ,opposed to the one I bought off of Ebay, since it was finally released in the US a few weeks ago).

Helen Murdoch said...

I read Jackson's Lottery last year and was AMAZED. It is so powerful

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Shirley Jackson is definitely amazing - and weird!  :--)  I didn't read Battle Royale but I have also heard it was similar, and many say better than The Hunger Games.  I look forward to hearing you thoughts on it!

pattismith said...

The Lottery is on of my favorites...a powerful example of the dangers of blind conformity...I thought of it as well as I read The Hunger Games.

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I've heard this compared to The Hunger Games.  You've got me curious about the ending.  I read Battle Royale before The Hunger Games so The Hunger Games was pretty predictable for me.  I'll be interested to see what you think of Battle Royale.

Judith said...

I don't really like reading short stories (but of course I sometimes do) - this sounds really good! I want to know what the "winner" has to do/is subjected to. Thanks for the link. I'll read this for sure.

Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis said...

It's very powerful - although you must start,,as you did, by not knowing how it ends. It's become such a classic (and so often referred to) that that might be difficult for many. 

Athira / Aths said...

Battle Royale is definitely fascinating! I'm so glad that I finally got to it, and that you highly recommend it. I hope you'll give Lottery a try to, but since you already know how it goes, there may not be that punch factor. I'm pretty fascinated with how many similarities exist between 
Battle Royale and Hunger Games.

Athira / Aths said...

It definitely is powerful! Not knowing what happens in the end definitely helps.

Athira / Aths said...

I have to read more of Shirley Jackson's works. I was quite blown away by this one. Have you tried any others by her?

Athira / Aths said...

I thought it was some kind of dystopia, but it was very well set in the contemporary world, which is what makes it even more powerful.

Athira / Aths said...

Battle Royale is definitely going well. I hope you give Lottery a try - it was quite thought-provoking. 

Athira / Aths said...

I never liked stories either, but this year, I wanted to change that, so I try to read one short story a week. The Lottery was pretty good. I hope you get to try it.

Athira / Aths said...

You're right! A lot depends on whether you know what will happen at the end. If you already know, you may not enjoy the story much - so true!

Lisa Sheppard said...

I had a great English teacher that read us this in ninth-grade who introduced me to this story and what a great conversation we had. It has stuck with me for 35 years. After reading your review, I think I need to read it again.

Care said...

I just read somewhere that Shirley Jackson has a memoir - THAT should be a fun and interesting read, too.  She is just so good at mood creation and you can tell she is incredibly smart and imaginative.

Gary Lyon said...

I find it difficult to believe that Suzanne Collins was not influenced by 'The Lottery'.  The essential plot premise is identical.  

Enrique Brown-spence said...

I was reading your summary and response on the story and I was feeling the same way. The fact that I thought it was a normal lottery and there were signs to show that something was bad was going on, went over my head. For example, when the author said that people were nervous I just thought it was because, it was just from hoping they were going to win but I was wrong! I just read the sort story for my English Comp 1 class for college and I wanted to look up me research on the the story because the rending blew my mind like you said!

Athira / Aths said...

It's been a while since I read this story and I feel like reading it again. Glad that you enjoyed the story too. What I loved most about it is the reader reaction when it was first published. So many people had something to say, something to protest. Even if people didn't like the story then, they cared enough to want to respond to it.