Revisiting “The Lottery”


| 2/18/2011 2:51:20 PM


Tags: The Lottery, Shirley Jackson, New Yorker, short stories, conformity, great writing, Mental Floss, Margret Aldrich,

Rock In Hand 

Spoiler alert: The conclusion to “The Lottery” is revealed in this article. If you’re not familiar with this very short story, take time to read or listen to it online.  

When The New Yorker published Shirley Jackson’s dark, controversial short story “The Lottery” in 1948, the magazine could not have been prepared for its visceral effect: readers were outraged, many immediately canceling their subscriptions, others sending hate mail to the author. How did a four-page story cause such upheaval and how did Jackson come to craft this allegory, which remains painfully relevant today?

The piece starts out harmlessly enough, trailing the activities of the townsfolk in a small, sleepy American borough, but it soon becomes ominous, as men, women, and children begin gathering rocks; discussing the protocols of the traditional, annual lottery; and ultimately drawing slips of paper to determine one unlucky sacrificial citizen. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” screams the chosen victim. Then “The Lottery” ends abruptly—stark and final—with the words “and then they were upon her.”

Dan Saltzstein of mental_floss speculates on the reading public’s reaction:

“The Lottery” was published at a time when America was scrambling for conformity. Following World War II, the general public wanted to leave behind the horrors of war and genocide. They craved comfort, normalcy, and old-fashioned values. Jackson’s story was a cutting commentary on the dangers of blind obedience to tradition, and she threw it, like a grenade, into a complacent post-war society.

While the reaction of readers caught The New Yorker off guard, the story behind “The Lottery” and the woman who wrote it is equally surprising. Saltzstein examines how the piece came to fruition for 31-year-old Jackson, then living in rural Vermont and carrying her third child: