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Talking about Short Story Club: March 2015

Emily Devane provides an insight into the the March short story club discussion of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’.

The-Lottery-and-other-stories“It was just a story that I wrote,” said Shirley Jackson of The Lottery. Written in just two hours, the story has since become a staple of US literature. Its publication in The New Yorker on 26 June, 1948, was followed by an angry backlash. Even Jackson’s mother didn’t care for the story: “Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?” she wrote to her daughter in a letter.

The tale centres on a small farming community conducting its annual lottery. Only in the final paragraphs is the lottery’s horrific purpose revealed.

At our March short story club, opinion was divided. Some readers loved the simplicity of the writing, cleverly crafted plot and subtle building of tension, the earliest hint of menace coming with the sentence: “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones.”

Others in the group were repulsed by the story’s subject matter, which still resonates powerfully. The brutal nature of the age-old ritual is, at first reading, obscured by deadpan description. The ritual is casually listed among Mr Summers’ many civic duties – “the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween programme” – and conducted early so that villagers could be “home for noon dinner”.

Discussion of the text ranged from the meaning of the names – Delacroix, Adams, and Graves the most obvious examples; to the use of metaphor: the black box – “shabby, fading, tainted” – is shoved in the corner to be forgotten until next year. The story explores the theme of collective responsibility. As readers, we become bystanders, sharing the guilt of the villagers. The effect is discomfiting. Little wonder The New Yorker’s post-war readership was so appalled.

We also explored the theme of hope. Is the story without hope? Nobody stands up and speaks out against “the lottery”, apart from the victim, and even then, only at the end. Tessie Hutchinson’s supposed “friend” Mrs Delacroix tells her to “be a good sport”, before picking up the largest of the stones. There is no outcry, not even from her own children, who seem pleased to have avoided their mother’s fate.

And yet the ritual is starting to be questioned, if only in small ways. There is an implication that its days are numbered: “So much of the ritual had become forgotten or discarded”; the wood chips used previously have been replaced by “papers that flutter” and there is “the odd murmur”. What’s more, the box hasn’t been replaced – the subject being “allowed to fade” each year. Will it die out with Old Man Warner, who laments that “people ain’t the way they used to be”?

The New Yorker’s response was to defend the story as “a fable, a microcosm to show how the forces of belligerence, persecution and vindictiveness choose their targets without reason.” Its power to shock has endured precisely because it is as true today as when it first appeared in print.

Emily DevaneWord Factory regular Emily Devane writes stories, short and long. A history teacher and debating coach by background, she is currently working on a novel set in twentieth century Poland. She won the Haringey Literature Live Open Studios Flash Fiction Competition and was recently shortlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize.

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