Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Shirley Jackson's Lottery and Other Stories

Prompted by my students’ reading of John Harris’s “The Survival Lottery” (see previous blog post), I got hold of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories, published by Penguin. I had never read any of Jackson’s stories or novels before, and in fact only knew about her from Stephen King who has often praised her. And rightly so, as I know now. Without ever explaining or commenting on the events that she narrates, Jackson makes the ordinary appear uncanny and reveals the cruelty, the violence and the emptiness that lurk below the thin surface of what we call civilization, not overcome or even tamed, but merely hidden away or temporarily channeled into the all-pervasive, stifling structures of oppression that regulate our lives and that we think of as normal.

In Jackson’s stories, people are monsters wearing the mask of humans, or they are victims, sometimes both. In “The Witch”, the kindly, elderly man “with a pleasant face under white hair” tells a little boy whom he meets on a train journey about his little sister who was “so pretty and so nice that I loved her more than anything else in the world”. So, he says, he bought her a rocking-horse and a doll and a million lollipops and then he took her, put his “hands around her neck and pinched her and pinched her until she was dead”. Then he “cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose”, and “put her head in a cage with a bear and the bear ate it all up”. The boy finds this pretty exciting, but is, unlike his mother, neither frightened nor shocked by the story or the idea of someone cutting their little sister up in pieces. We don’t get to know what the boy is thinking (nor do we know why the man said those things or whether or not they were true), but we can imagine him thinking about his own little sister and about cutting her into little pieces. It is the ultimate alienation: to discover that even your own children are not immune to the possibility of evil.

In “The Renegade” a young family, the Walpoles, have just moved to the country and are still trying to settle in when Mrs Walpole is being told by one of their new neighbours that their dog, affectionately called Lady, has been seen chasing and killing chickens. Within a couple of hours everyone in the little community knows about it, and although Mrs Walpole apologises profusely and promises to make amends, everyone she meets tells her that she needs to do something about the dog: either kill her or make it impossible for her ever to kill a chicken again. Asking her neighbours for advice, the suggestions she gets become increasingly cruel. Nobody pays the slightest attention to the welfare of the dog or to the bond that exists between her and the family – although even that bond, or the reality or thickness of it, is quickly called into question: when the two Walpole children come home from school, they already know all about it and cheerfully announce to the dog that she will be shot or worse. A neighbour, “a genial man who lived near the Walpoles and gave the children nickels and took the boys fishing”, had told them they needed to get a collar for the dog, hammer big thick nails all around inside it, put it around the dog’s neck, get a long rope, fasten it to the collar, take her where there are chickens, turn her loose, and then, when she gets really close, pull on the rope, hard, so that the spikes cut her head off. Again, the children don’t find this prospect frightening or at least alarming at all. Rather, they think it’s absolutely hilarious. “They both began to laugh and Lady, looking from one to the other, panted as though she were laughing too. Mrs. Walpole looked at them, at her two children with their hard hands and their sunburned faces laughing together, their dog with blood still on her legs laughing with them. She went to the kitchen doorway to look outside at the cool green hills, the motion of the apple tree in the soft afternoon breeze. ‘Cut your head right off,’ Jack was saying. Everything was quiet and lovely in the sunlight, the peaceful sky, the gentle line of the hills. Mrs. Walpole closed her eyes, suddenly feeling the harsh hands pulling her down, the sharp points closing in on her throat.”

This last vision, where the mother sees herself cast in the role of the dog, more or less comes true in Jackson’s best known story, “The Lottery”. The story starts innocuous enough. “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.” It is clearly a lovely day, a day to enjoy, and it appears that that is exactly what the inhabitants of a small village who are gathering for some annual event they refer to as “the lottery” intend to do. People greet their neighbours and chat amicably about everyday things. Gossip is exchanged, children play. The atmosphere is not unlike that which we would expect at a country fair. What they are going to do has been done every year for a very long time. Nobody remembers the origins of the tradition, when it started or why exactly it is being done at all. There is an old saying that suggests that the success of the harvest might depend on it, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not. It is simply the way things are being done; the way things have always been done. It then turns out, towards the end of the story, that what is being decided by means of the lottery is who is going to be killed this year. Everyone takes a slip of paper from a black box. One of them has a black dot on it, and whoever gets this paper will be stoned to death by the other villagers.

This year it is Tessie Hutchinson, well-liked wife and mother of three, who is unlucky enough to draw the losing ticket. Once it is clear that she’s the one, her friends and neighbours, and with particular glee the children, including her own, take stones from the ground and, without any hesitation and despite Tessie’s anguished cries of protest, throw them at her until she is dead. “Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. ‘It isn’t fair,’ she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. (...) ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

There is no indication, however, that Mrs. Hutchinson would have protested if somebody else had been chosen. If one of her friends had had the bad fortune of losing the lottery, she would have thrown stones with the others. It is only by being personally affected that she comes to realise the wrongness of the whole procedure, or if she herself doesn’t, then at least we do. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, not that this particular person has to die, but that someone is randomly picked to die. I almost wrote “for no good reason”, but that would be a mistake, because it seems to me that the whole point of this story is to show that even if there were some useful purpose to the whole procedure, even if it were, say, true that the success of the harvest depended on the annual ritual sacrifice of one of them, even then would it remain a terrible, nightmarish thing to do. Something that can never be justified. And in that respect it is exactly like Harris’s survival lottery. Certain things must not be done no matter how useful they appear to be. Nobody should be sacrificed for the alleged good of the community. An evil act remains an evil act even if someone benefits from it. Utility is not the measure of all things.

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