Shirley Jackson, born in 1916, is a classic and outstanding writer of American literature of the 20th century. She is best known for her story “The Lottery” (1948) and the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959). Richard Matheson and Stephen King were under her influence. Some critics even called the 1950s the “Jackson’s decade”. But now, they remember her mostly because of her story titled “The Lottery”. It is included in almost all American anthologies of short stories.
Despite several written novels that awarded the praise from critics and raised the readers’ interest, her most famous work is “The Lottery” collection of stories, which describes the unsightly rural town in America. The plot of this book reminds about Kafka, but it is also very American. Probably the author wrote “The Lottery” short story in one in one sitting, beginning writing in the morning and finished it in the evening. The main story with the same title tells about an old tradition of a certain region to carry out a lottery, to which all local people come every year on the 27th of June. From the people’s conversations, it becomes clear that some neighboring towns rejected this long-time tradition. The lottery is checked by one of the local residents. He puts the tickets in an old black box and invites the participants in turn. A representative of each of families comes up and takes a ticket out of the box. One woman took out a winning ticket. She is terribly nervous and tries to protest. Then, the crowd was taking hold of stones. Only at the end of the story, we learn that the prize in the lottery was not money at all. Beating by stones was a terrible prize. At the end, each villager was taken a stone and the crowd surrounded Tessie, this woman who became the victim. She was stoned to death while she was crying and cursed the unfairness of such a situation.
Shirley Jackson herself characterized her desire to write this story as an attempt to bring to light the meaningless cruelty of ancient rituals, which sometimes still take place. The title story, symbolically placed at the end of the collection, announces the verdict to the world of stereotypes and predicts its future. If the society is governed by conventions, then people can agree about anything and it is never too late to revive the tradition of sacrifice. When the story was first published in the New Yorker magazine (which is a very respectable literary edition for intellectuals), it caused a huge response, in particular with a big number of readers’ feedback letters, in many of which indignant readers informed the editorial board that they were interrupting their subscription. Among the letters, there were also those in which readers asked where such lotteries were held and how to get there. Lenemaja Friedman, the author of the critical biography about Shirley Jackson, noted that “The Lottery” had gathered so many responses that no other story from The New Yorker magazine had ever got. Hundreds of letters were poured the publishing house, which, according to Jackson’s opinion, could be qualified as the shock, speculation and old-fashioned attacks.
Twenty-five stories from the Lottery collection, originally titled “The Adventures of James Harris”, give the reader a real literary pleasure. The title story, The Lottery, has become so firmly entrenched in the treasury of the American twentieth-century literature that it seems to have penetrated into the very consciousness of Americans. In most of the stories collected under this cover, nothing fantastic seemed to happen. In her stories, remembering the images of a drunken guest and a sensible girl from the Intoxication story, Jackson constantly addresses the theme of the moral choice, mental purity of children in comparison with adults, and the society intolerance in which a person is persecuted only because he is not like the others. Her stories are also remarkable because of the author, opening to readers the inner world of her characters in full details, never violates the invisible border that separates this world from the reality. The typical Jackson’s character is a representative of the middle class, which remains in the grip of his stereotypes.
“The Lottery” book is a very uneven set of stories about the lives of ladies and women, working or not, children, neighbors, and relatives. It’s all sort of stiff manners, but terribly scary, because sometimes prejudices and human stuff can produce the much more negative effect than curses and voodoo dolls. Without binding herself up with genre conventions, the writer plunged into the depths of the human psyche, revealing the fears and vices of her contemporaries with an unchanging irony and a ruthless precision. Children in Jackson stories generally show themselves more vigorous and bolder than adults. Endowed with imagination and poetic talent, they refuse to play the role of a learned monkey with the emotionally growing elders. So, in the story “After you, my dear Alphonse”, the main heroine struggles to be politically correct and she does not notice that she fell into the good old racism turned inside out. Her little son and his dark-skinned friend, who had not yet had time to admit adult conventions, met her blissfulness with misunderstanding. For example, the young girl from another story,” Afternoon in Linen”, has a doubtless imagination and poetic talent, refuses to play the role of a learned monkey with the emotionally growing elders. And yet the resistance of the child’s mind is not infinite. Some boys and girls, without even noticing it, open their souls to the evil in the broadest sense. The young hero of the “Charles” story develops the ability to shift the blame on others and enjoys using it. Kids from the “Witch” and “Strangers” readily absorb the lessons of cruelty that the outer world presents them.
Other children adopt fears from their parents and grow up to be copies of them, unable to stand up for themselves, even in the face of the clear rudeness (“On the House” and “Trial by Combat” ). The harassment and inconvenience frighten young people much less than the risk of not keeping up appearances. Sensitive individuals who are not ready to accept the rules of this world are doomed to the failure (“Bulletin”). This is the fate of Margaret from the “Pillar of Salt” story – a modest provincial girl is crushed by the fussy and unfriendly New York City. In the finale of the story, the monster city takes off the last mask and reveals its authentic, demonic essence, which does not welcome strangers. The personality of the person is erased and rewritten again in the infernal meat grinder of New York.
Although the later novels (first of all, “The Haunting of Hill House “) brought the glory to Shirley Jackson, “the literary witch”, “The Lottery” book manifested her talent to anatomically accurate depict the human soul. Shirley Jackson’s stories, written about the fine border between the real and the fantastic, never stop to excite readers’ emotions in present days.