In the past week, I've encountered no fewer than 10 references, send-ups, or blatant rip-offs of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." These range from the turning point in a new AAA video game sequel to one panel gags in webcomics. There is a fascination with this disturbing little tale and it's well earned. The lasting power of "The Lottery" can be attributed to a masterful handling of suspense. The whole way through the story, we know the lottery is coming. Everyone is getting ready for the lottery. The old traditions are recounted and people are buzzing about with nervous energy. Tension builds as the people in the town begin to discuss how other towns have done away with the lottery before the conversation is stopped by the officiate of the events. One woman, Mrs. Hutchinson, runs in late and immediately complains about every step of the process.
The nature of the lottery is not revealed until the final moments of the story. However, Jackson sets the stage for the grim finale in the first two paragraphs. Everything from the significance of family names to the large pile of stones the men all try to avoid is pointed out in turn before anything actually really happens. These details, more than any other element until the arrival of Mrs. Hutchinson, serve to build suspense.
You might not notice what is being set up at first. It's obviously an old tradition since it's described as older than the oldest man in town. The whole town participates, no matter how young or old, so everyone understands what the rules are. There's no need to explain what happens before it happens because only the townspeople are involved in the event. The questions about other towns getting rid of the lottery are dismissed as young people going against traditions that matter to a community. You might even think the contest is a happy one for the winner.
Yet when Mrs. Hutchinson arrives, the story turns. Her rising panic causes unease in the town. The other townspeople try to play cool and rise above her outbursts but this kind of behavior could never be ignored. When she tries to force them to break the rules to better her odds, you realize that the winner isn't getting a prize worth getting. Then the first stone is picked up and the story ends right as the true face of the lottery shows itself.
"The Lottery" was so shocking at the time of publication that Shirley Jackson received hate mail for years. The anger came from a sense of betrayal, as they idyllic opening suggested a gentler story. Instead, Jackson composed a very open story that intentionally avoided the real nature of the ancient ritual for artistic purposes.
Not only were the readers shocked, they were confused. Jackson opened up the story to multiple interpretations and that didn't sit right at the time. The story goes to such a dark and violent place that people wanted to know why. Jackson herself couldn't, or wouldn't, say. She had a few explanations for it but none of them were a definitive reading. You get what you want to get out of the story of an ancient ritual in modern times and that's all.
The suspense comes from the unknown. You experience the rituals of the lottery in real time with people who, for whatever reason, don't seem particularly excited about the event. They are resigned to this fate even if they don't agree with it. The mystery of the lottery is a powerful motivator to keep reading until the abrupt and violent conclusion.
Had the true nature been revealed sooner, "The Lottery" would just be a pulp story and not nearly as esteemed. The choice to delay the reveal to the final few lines and end before the worst has even begun allows the execution of the story to have as much weight as its grim finale. It's a masterful editing job that ultimately forces you to linger on the final moments and the emotions they bring to the surface.
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