Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is one of the most famous American short stories and perhaps one of the most baffling.
It centres around a small town, whose residents meet for the annual ‘lottery’. The lottery takes place in other towns around the same time and its purpose is unclear, however the consequences of having one’s name drawn, without spoiling the entire plot are, to say the least, dire.
The Lottery provoked an inundation of letters to the New Yorker, which first published the story in 1948, some more bizarre than others. One correspondent believed to have discovered a hidden communist agenda, while others accused the author of perversion and “incredibly bad taste”. There were even accusations of a publicity stunt. What for, no one knows. Maybe for a certain movie more than half a century later? Because of its abrupt and shocking ending, some readers even thought the printer had mistakenly cut the story in half.
Though it provoked much reaction and contained (a perceived) multitude of themes, The Lottery had a surprisingly impulsive and unarchitected origin. In a recent article, Slate reveals that Jackson wrote the story with apparent ease; that, “it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause”. After the first draft, Jackson reports to have only made “one or two minor corrections”.
Whatever the true meaning behind The Lottery is, its reception and continued popularity demonstrates the power of shorts stories to ignite human imagination. Its success lies in its mystery: it forces us to wonder and ask, “What the hell did I just read?”. And by leaving plenty of gaps for our minds to fill in, it triggers new ideas, loony or otherwise, in everyone who arrives at the last sentence:
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.