Sunday, 31 May 2009

Bibliotherapy:what to read when life seems unfair


When cataclysm strikes – death, divorce, disaster, despair, of which I have had my fair share – there is a question that can hover in the air. ‘Why me?’ The answer, of course, is ‘why not me…’ But if one forgets this – and I do forget, as most of us do – then a reminder of the random harshness of life can be found in Shirley Jackson’s story, ‘The Lottery’. First published by the New Yorker on June 26th 1948 (and anthologised many times since), it opens on the morning of June 27th, a sunny summer’s day in rural America, as village people gather for their annual lottery.

What follows next is an account of how a scapegoat is chosen by lottery to be stoned to death by the rest of the community, a sacrificial victim to ensure a good harvest. Such is the vividness of contemporary detail that the tale seems less gothic fantasy than nightmarish reality: ‘The lottery was conducted – as were the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program – by Mr Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities. He was a round-faced jovial man and he ran the coal business.’

The story was met with widespread horror; the following month, Jackson wrote of the difficulty in explaining a work of fiction, which had been seen by some readers as fact. “I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” Jackson lived in Bennington, Vermont – the epitome of civilized American life – and her readers responded with unusual venom. In the avalanche of hate mail she received, “I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it 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?’”

If not cheering, ‘The Lottery’ is nevertheless unexpectedly bracing, in its clear-sighted acknowledgement that little in life is fair, and of that much we can be certain.

21 comments:

kairu said...

I haven't read this story since middle school, but I remember being horrified by it. As chilling as Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, which we read around the same time, I think.

There is a funny moment in the book Iron and Silk, where the author Mark, who is fresh out of Yale and teaching English in China, is trying to explain to his students that it is just a story, that really, Americans were not in the habit of doing such things to their fellow citizens. The story, he tells them, is only "an exaggerated and therefore dramatic example of a kind of behavior that occurs all over the world, not just in America, where individuals do terrible things, things they would never ordinarily do, when they are part of a crowd."

Mary McCallum said...

I remember first reading The Lottery in one of those massive Readers Digest anthologies. As you say the ordinary detail of an ordinary village gather to that terrible final moment. It is one of my favourite stories of all time - thought-provoking, terrifying, darkly brilliant.

oxford-reader said...

I've never read any Shirley Jackson, but I had a friend at Uni, who wrote her thesis on Jackson's work, particularly 'The Lottery'.

That's what I like about gothic writers though. They remind you that no matter how rough you think your life is at that moment, someone - somewhere - is having a much worse time!

Justine Picardie said...

It's a brilliant story -- I definitely want to read more of her writing.

kairu said...

I love Life Among the Savages, a sort of fictionalized memoir about Jackson's experiences as a wife and mother. It is very funny, and very different from the works I was familiar with.

Have just ordered The Haunting of Hill House, and will revisit The Lottery if I can find my fifth-grade literature anthology somewhere. (Have I shown you a photograph of my library? It causes most people to reel in horror).

jaywalker said...

As you're writing about Coco Chanel I thought you might be interested in a book I'm currently reading, A Dangerous Liaison - a new biography of de Beauvoir and Sartre. If you ever wanted to read about the most bizarre and complex gender relationships, this is it. But it's also very evocative of the period and a clear explanation of their ideas and as it's around the same time, it might be of interest to you.

Primrose said...

I do love Shirley Jackson's work so much! The Lottery is a brilliant story and very timely for me at the moment (I have a parent dying in a very cruel and seemingly senseless manner) I also enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House. The original film was also very creepy. Not the Catherine Zeta version let me hasten to add!

Phillygirl said...

My reactionary American mother tried to have this story banned from my school when I was assigned it as it promoted 'secular humanism.' Long live secular humanism and thanks, again, Justine for providing a thought-provoking post. Must read more Jackson.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I'll add The Haunting of Hill House to my list. Still waiting for the Fairchild fashion book to arrive -- have ordered it second hand, as no longer in print.
Does the Sartre/de Beauvoir book refer to Chanel? I didn't think they moved in the same circles...

Justine Picardie said...

I wonder why the story provoked such intensely violent reactions. Odd that so much hostility can be evoked by her troubling narrative; but perhaps that is the sign of a potent piece of modern gothic.

kairu said...

I think The Lottery provoked such a violent reaction because it forced its audience to confront a reality that no one wants to believe or acknowledge - that people are capable of unthinking, random acts of cruelty. That one can be swept away in the midst of a crowd. That even though the randomly chosen public stoning is fiction, we have done things far worse in real life.

Knitting Out Loud said...

Someone (who? can't remember) suggested that The Lottery had to do with McCarthy's anti-communist hearings in the US Senate: a protest, or comment on them.
I don't recall Channel being mentioned (but it was awhile ago)in de Beauvoir's 4 volume autobiography. (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter wonderful!)

lillyanne said...

Ay yi yi!
Don't read 'The Haunting of Hill House' at night, by yourself in the house. I beg you. I read it when I was about 12 and I've never really recovered.

Barbara Joan said...

And don't watch the 1960's film by yourself, late at night, either ... it will have you jumping out of your skin at the least little noise and you will really, really regret it too. (By the way, hardback first editions of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House are quite rare and valuable so if you are ever lucky enough to come across one at a reasonable cost snap it up ... I have been looking for years ...).

kairu said...

I scared myself half to death last night while reading House on Haunted Hill in bed. The cords of my window blinds were jingling a little, but I thought that was just the air conditioning. Then, the door shut with a BANG! sending me flying out of bed with a jump. It turned out that my cleaning lady had left the window just a little bit open the day before, and outside a stiff breeze was blowing...I had to read a few pages of The Three Musketeers before I could settle down to sleep.

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StuckInABook said...

The story is quite brilliant. I've also loved her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. Especially WHALitC, which I see is being published in Penguin Classics in the Autumn. I've pre-ordered my copy!
Simon

jaywalker said...

No, the Sartre book doesn't refer to Chanel but it gives a good feel for the politics and thinking and social mores/morals of the time. And as for the sex.....I didn't think one small, fat, ugly man could get through as many women as he did or de Beauvoir through so many men AND underage girls. He practically bedded every woman he was introduced to.

Justine Picardie said...

What was his secret? And why is the mysterious 'Sexy' posting on this blog? I think we should be told...

samanthacruise said...

The New Yorker kept no records of the phone calls, but letters addressed to Jackson were forwarded to her. That summer she began to regularly take home 10 to 12 forwarded letters each day.

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