Sometimes I look at posts on my town’s Facebook group, and I don’t think that the events of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” are so far-fetched. There’s an incredible amount of aggression and tribalism; people are willing to figuratively stone each other for benign opinions about local restaurants. Once, my partner witnessed an argument turn into a demand to “Come fight me at the Santa Parade.”
Thinking about this was what inspired me to reread this story just now for the first time since eighth grade. Knowing where it’s going doesn’t diminish the impact, but rather makes it ever more horrifying and tense. It kills me that the woman who dies is late to the lottery because she didn’t want to leave dishes in the sink.
But what makes The Lottery such a memorable, chilling story isn’t any aggression displayed by the characters. It’s the matter-of-factness with which they band together and commit murder, then go home and go about their days. An enormous portion of the story is dedicated simply to the clerical and organizational problems of conducting the whole affair.
“…the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery
No one is saying, “This is cruel.”
No one is saying, “This is insane.”
No is is saying, “Summon up a teaspoon of empathy for another human being, and don’t act like this.”
That goes for the characters in The Lottery, and for a lot of people on a lot of towns’ Facebook groups.
When I looked up “The Lottery,” I also came across a Mental Floss article of facts about this story. My favorite part was Jackson’s parents’ reaction to the story:
“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”
When does reading more books cease to to have any benefit and turn into consumption for its own sake? The other night, while trying to get through even half an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, my partner and I instead discussed this and how some books are better suited to slow reading.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit is such a book. It’s dense with history and beautifully written, with plenty of lines worth lingering over, and really thinking about. I started reading this book a couple years ago, before I got past my underlining phobia, and I knew it would be worth revisiting, pencil in hand.
I’m looking forward to the later chapters, which go into city design and feminism, but between reading seven other books and deliberately going through this one slowly, it’s probably going to take months.