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:
From a distance, her life seemed tranquil and wholesome. But something darker was brewing inside.
On a sunny, June day in 1948, while taking a long walk, that darkness emerged. Several months pregnant and pushing a baby carriage loaded with groceries, Jackson found the trip more difficult than she’d anticipated. The entire time, she couldn’t stop thinking about a book her husband had shown her on ancient rites of human sacrifice.
As soon as Jackson got home, she wrote the 3,378 words of “The Lottery.” It took her just two hours, and seemed to flow out of her nearly perfect. “Except for one or two minor corrections,” she remembered later, “it needed no changes.”
Jackson–herself, perhaps, feeling pressure to conform to the standards of her sex, age, and decade–left us with a tale that has shocked and moved readers for 63 years. The story’s relevance is unquestionable in an era when individualism and conformity are at constant odds.
Source: mental_floss (article not available online)