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Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: Still Brutal After All These Years

March 2, 2010

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is, without any doubt in my mind, the greatest short story ever written. Concise, ambiguous, ironic and deceptively simple, this story is one which, even now, haunts the reader long afterwards. It’s the kind of story I think all of us wish we could have dreamed up.

What’s cool about the story is that you can’t categorize it. Is it a horror tale? Well, maybe. It’s certainly horrifying. Is it a satire? Could be. One could easily interpret it as a commentary on conformity, mindless tradition or ritualistic behavior of which the meaning is lost. But at the same time, to over-analyze the story is to take away its emotional heft. “The Lottery” is great because of Jackson’s prose. For a great deal of the story, it seems like nothing is going on, even though we are learning a great deal about its characters and the world they live in. In fact, most of the main characters lull the reader into a comfort zone because we know people like this in real life, and we’re lulled into a false sense of security.

Then when the climax is revealed, it’s like being hit with a ton of bricks. Yeah, we know the ‘lottery’ of the tale is going to lead to something, but not seemingly pointless and brutal death!

What I personally like about the story is that it has the same traits as my favorite horror films. There is no explanation for what’s going on, no motive; we are simply forced to accept things as they are. It leaves the door wide open to a plethora of interpretations.

I teach 7th grade English, and this story is part of my “Weird Tales” unit. And I love the love-it-or-loathe-it reactions from my students. Some kids cannot get past Jackson’s refusal to reveal the village’s motive, others are confused by the climax itself (does she die or doesn’t she?). Ultimately, there are some who are simply blown away by the story’s sudden brutality.

Any story that, decades after it was written, continues to spark debate, conjecture and sharply-divided opinion, is a great one in my book.

D.M. Anderson (author of Killer Cows and “The Bottom of the Well”)


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