So let's say I'm the CEO of Creative Education in Mankato, MN. I come across Shirley Jackson's disturbing short story The Lottery
. What's my first impulse? Appreciate the work as a masterpiece of dark fiction? Tell my colleagues about Shirley Jackson's greatness? Apparently not. Instead, I'm going to put it in a Seuss-like very thin hard cover format, mix in a few drawings, label it "A Classic Story of Ritual", and use it for teaching moments in elementary schools. Who knew Shirley Jackson wrote the world's creepiest children's book?
Okay, strange formatting choices aside, Jackson can tell a mean story. In The Lottery
, she uses surprise and a seemingly innocent setting reminiscent of Andy Griffith's world to question the place of ritual in human life. What happens as founders of ritual die and the distance from the founding moment increases year by year? Knowledge of the "why?" decreases, some formerly important gestures and postures are forgotten, adherents might defend the continuation of the practice by saying "we've always done it that way." The end result is hollow tradition devoid of meaning. In The Lottery
, that hollowed out tradition is a drawing with the loser's fate being death by stoning. No prayers, no reading from a book of community law, no appeals to a god. Simply communal murder made traditional by catchy statements like "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." Thanks, but I'd prefer to live in a community that claimed corn should be "knee high by the Fourth of July."
I love how Jackson waits to reveal what's actually happening till the very end of the story. Foreshadowing runs throughout, but you spend 99% of the already short story wondering what in the world the annual lottery is about. In addition to borrowing plot ideas from Battle Royale
, Suzanne Collins must have gotten her annual lottery idea for The Hunger Games
from Jackson. Well written, haunting, and apparently influential for writers of current runaway best sellers, The Lottery
is well worth the 20 lightning fast minutes you'll spend reading it.