The Lottery and Other Stories

The LotteryThere are too many people in these stories by Shirley Jackson—people who watch, people who judge, people who insinuate themselves into your life, people who leave, people who throw stones. Almost every story unearths some little bit of darkness in urban or suburban life, life that on the surface seems perfectly genial.

Before reading this collection, “The Lottery” was the only one of Jackson’s stories that I could remember having read. If you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. On first read, if you don’t know what’s happening, it’s a shocker, but the story is so embedded in American culture that it has lost some of its shock value. However, experiencing it as the capstone of a collection about secret darkness in people and communities brought some of its power back. It’s a story that shows how far things can go when ritual goes unquestioned and cruelty goes unchecked.

Most of the other stories, however, are about more commonplace cruelties. “Charles” is probably the lightest story of the bunch and one I think I’d come across before. Did she adapt it from Life Among the Savages? It’s one of those “kids do the darndest things” kinds of stories about a little boy telling tales about a naughty classmate. Couched in the midst of these uncomfortable and oppressive stories, it looks a little more sinister than I remembered it being.

I was surprised to find two stories—“After You, My Dear Alphonse” and “Flower Garden”—that made race a topic. The white suburban woman at each story’s center has certain expectations about the lives and roles of their black neighbors. These women are perfectly nice and polite, but they see blacks and whites having proper places and roles and see no reason to change that.

These are almost all stories about women, single women, married women, women with jobs, women at home. Mostly unhappy women. “Elizabeth,” for example, has a job that has gone nowhere, although she pretends differently. Similarly, the title character in “The Villager” has built a life that she’s happy with, unless she lets herself think about the life she meant to have. For these women, the pain comes from within and the difference between what they planned and what they have.

The lead character in “The Demon Lover,” which Ana and Chris both wrote about this week, is also dealing with dashed hopes as she waits for her lover on their wedding day, all the while fretting over whether she’s wearing the right thing and what people will think. As Ana notes in her review, it turns out that she was right to worry because when she finally ventures out, people smirk at her and treat her with barely concealed scorn. And by the end of the story, we’re pulled right along with them as we’re given reason to wonder how real her lover is.

As I think of the final image of the protagonist in “The Demon Lover,” I come back to Tess Hutchinson’s wail of “It’s not fair” at the end of “The Lottery.” This is, I think, a book full of (mostly) women crying inside that “it’s not fair.” But this isn’t a book all about damning the patriarchy. It’s more complicated than that.

Sometimes, for example, women are the ones doing the oppressing. It’s a woman who weasels her way into a man’s life in “Like Mother Used to Make.” Interestingly, however, she is able to do so because he takes on traditionally feminine roles while she grabs the power (and the house). The housekeeper in “Men with Their Big Shoes” similarly draws herself into an unwilling host’s home, this time by putting on a sort of sisterly camaraderie that the story’s protagonist doesn’t know how to refuse. People wanting to be polite is a problem in these stories. It’s being polite that keeps them in their places. And again, I return to Tess crying that “It’s not fair” even though all the rules were followed. Everything was done as it should be, and that is her doom.

I think, mostly, this is a book about people being made miserable by other people. The protagonists are mostly women, but it’s not just women who suffer. We rub up against each other in this world, and rubbing causes friction. Some people push their way in (like the neighbor in “Trial by Combat”), and others do mean things without a thought (like the man who buys the book he doesn’t even want in “Seven Types of Ambiguity”), but sometimes just going about our business (crossing the street in “Pillar of Salt”) makes life impossible for others. These are unsettling stories about how hard it is to live in the world. They’re perfect in their uncomfortableness.

Shirley-Jackson-Reading-WeekI read this collection for the Shirley Jackson Reading Week hosted by Simon, Jenny, and Ana. Thanks to you all for giving me the impetus for pulling this off my shelf. I think all of the stories at once was a bit of an overdose, but a Shirley Jackson overdose is a good kind of overdose!

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15 Responses to The Lottery and Other Stories

  1. Beautifully done. It isn’t easy to review a book of short stories!

  2. Deb says:

    I’m not sure of the title or if it’s in the collection you read, but the Jackson short story that has always stayed with me is about a typical “little old lady” and what happens to her when her neighbors discover she’s been sending poison pen letters. Chilling.

    • Deb says:

      I just looked it up. It’s called “The Possibility of Evil” and it won an Edgar Award (posthumously, I believe).

      • Teresa says:

        That one isn’t in this collection, but it sounds great. It fits right in with the idea that people are watching, which comes up repeatedly here.

      • I was trying to remember the title of this story! I read it in eighth grade along with “The Lottery” and I remember finding it utterly, utterly creepy. Very on brand for Shirley Jackson. :)

  3. If you’d like to read a longer Shirley Jackson with a very odd story line, try the novelette “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” I read it a long time ago as a young person, and so cannot really recall the whole thing well in retrospect, but it was quite chilling. I think my first clue that there was anything wrong or amiss came when the narrator remarks that “my index fingers are as long as my middle fingers, which proves I’m a werewolf,” or words to that effect. I can’t remember ever figuring out whether this was a horror book or more of a psychological-horror book, but it was so long ago, and I was such an immature reader. Still, I remember being well scared!

    • Teresa says:

      I read that a year or two, and I agree that it’s very good. The horror, for me, was on a psychological level, and it was really unnerving.

  4. Simon T says:

    Lovely! Glad you joined in :) I read this collection in one go a while ago, and agree that spacing them might have been better – but there is so much powerful stuff in these stories. I thought ‘After You, My Dear Alphonse’ was brilliant – in what it didn’t quite say – and it’s the one that has stayed with me most.

    • Teresa says:

      With so many of these stories, it’s what they don’t quite say that really gets to me. I didn’t mention “Of Course” in my review, but that one has been on my mind a lot today. It’s unsettling on multiple levels.

  5. heavenali says:

    I read The Lottery in a Persephone collection it is very memorable and darkly brilliant. I really want to read more Shirley Jackson.

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t realize “The Lottery” was in one of the Persephone collections. It is memorable–that ending is so startling the first time.

  6. I still have my paperback copy of this collection from high school (more than forty years ago), and it still chills. Two of the lighter stories, “Charles,” and “Afternoon in Linen,” are among my favorites. I agree, in context “Charles is not funny at all, but more a realization that the mother’s little son is a Bad Seed in sheep’s clothing, and I didn’t find out until later that most people thought it was funny. “Afternoon in Linen” is set in a complacent living room and features a precocious little girl being fussed over about some little poems that she wrote. The child’s revelation to the two old women also in the room was, for the high schooler in me, one of those short story “reveals” that I still remember with awe and admiration for Ms. Jackson all these many years later.

    Thanks for showcasing Ms. Jackson; a new book of uncollected tales is coming out shortly, I believe, and perhaps there are a few new gems to discover among them…

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been seeing lots of excitement about the new collection. I’m hoping that there’s some good stuff in it, but I’m glad, too, that I’ve got quite a lot of her work left to read–plenty to look forward to!

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, and I looked up “Charles” to see if I could figure out where I read it before, and she did include it in “Life Among the Savages,” which was published after this collection.

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