I’ve read three of Shirley Jackson’s novels, so it only felt right to try some of her short stories; and after all, The Lottery is heralded as one of the most brilliant (and controversial) in the genre.
At first, some of these stories reminded me Truman Capote’s with their edge of uncertainty and fear underlying the safe environment of the home – I particularly thought of his story Miriam, with its creeping unease. But as this collection goes on the stories become more and more unsettling, until the story of the title is reached at the very end and the reader is left bewildered and amazed.
I already knew that Jackson was a wonderful novelist, but now I know that she is also a master of the short story. Her ability to create not only tension and uncertainty but also vivid characters and settings with so few words really is impressive. She also makes liberal use of ambiguous endings to leave the reader wondering if they really understood what they just read, or if she misled them the whole time. It’s like the bewilderment at the end of her novel Hangsaman repeated over and over.
Like most of her work that I’ve read so far, these stories of Jackson’s are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that women have created for themselves in society. Housewives are under threat from forces trying to disrupt their marriage or their neighbourhood; an executive is threatened by the presence of a new receptionist and the confusion over her relationship with her boss; and several female characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. There is much to fear in the apparently safe worlds of home and work. Even the husbands and boyfriends can pose some sort of underlying threat.
Most interesting to me was Jackson’s repeated use of the name James Harris for male characters; this name first appears in the story The Daemon Lover. This is also the name of a Scottish ballad – that is also known as ‘James Harris’. Jackson’s story features a young woman waiting for her fiancé on their wedding day, who happens to be called James Harris. This name appears again and again in various forms (sometimes ‘Mr Harris’ or simply ‘Jim’) and the reader wonders if he is a symbol for the harm that men can do to women through their attitudes and treatment. Jackson’s James Harris is the man your mother warned you about, the stranger who stares at you, the boyfriend you’re not quite sure about. It is a potent symbol of the threat to women’s rights and happiness in society and the home.
This collection was first published in the late 1940s, and we must remember that this was a time when women were expected to return to their subservient pre-war roles, and the men were returning to the work force. Jackson’s women yearn for more than their small domestic lives – or they guard them fiercely. There is a sense that the world one has created could so easily be destroyed by one person or one decision, and women are particularly vulnerable to this. These underlying issues make these stories even more brilliant than they are on the surface, and made me realise how sharp and intelligent Jackson’s writing is, and how wonderful it is to read.
I’m now on a mission to read everything she has ever written!
Originally published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1949. I read the 2009 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).
Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.
9 thoughts on “The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)”
“The Lottery” is the only thing of Jackson’s I’ve read so far. It scared me so much, I’ve not yet plucked up the courage to read anything else….
If it was too much for you then fair enough! It is probably the darkest of her stories though, so you should be ok. Most of them have more of a menacing undertone than outright horror or whatever. Worth a go!
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I think the individual story “The Lottery” is the only thing I’ve ever read by Jackson, which is surely an oversight. However, I have read a novel *about* her, Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell. That was very good. It looked at some of the issues you mention about being a housewife versus working. There’s also a new biography of Jackson out that I’m sure would be interesting.
I’d love to read that bio too – she seems like such an interesting person. Everything I have read of hers has been brilliant, so I will recommend reading more!
My daughter’s contemporary dance class choreographed a dance based on The Lottery – it was very effective. I, too, would love to read more Shirley Jackson!
I need this so bad. I love Shirley Jackson. I’ve read two of her novels and the lottery, but I really need to see what else she has to offer. Really great review!
I have read the unforgettable The Lottery and some other stories in the Let me Tell you collection. I can see why they might put you in mind of Truman – I love his short stories too. Shirley Jackson is a brilliant writer. I need to read more by her.
I have yet to read any Shirley Jackson but I’ve heard a lot about her recently and your review makes me want to try her books even more!
[…] the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but […]