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Book Review: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Picture the scene: I arrive an hour early for a charity meeting and have time to kill. What do I do? Hit the bookshop of course!

My fingers were prickling. I wanted something to digest, that I could read quickly and wouldn’t have to commit myself to. I wanted something that would pass the time. Knowing where I could find what I wanted, I perused the shop’s front desk. It was there that I came across The Lottery by Shirley Jackson- a 99p eleven page paper-bound offering from Penguin’s Modern Classics.

The find itself was like something out of a horror story, and I being the ignorant protagonist was none the wiser. 

Now, I’ve heard a lot about Mrs Jackson, particularly The Haunting of Hill House, but I’ve never actually read anything she’d written. So I had at the look at the front cover: glowing recommendations from none other than Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman- good start. But it wasn’t until I had read the introduction page that I knew I would be taking this little ‘gem’ away with me.  It states: ‘readers were so horrified by it they sent her hate mail.’ Hook, line and sinker. Decades of absorbing the mainstream media coverage of war and violence had, I thought, had the Hypodermic Needle effect of desensitising me to brutality and horror long ago.

O.K Mrs Williams, I thought. Challenge accepted. I sat myself in a generic coffee shop chain and read my find. I won’t say the tale got to me (honest), but it’s one of those stories that once read you can’t ever go back…

Set in a village reflecting contemporary American life, The Lottery commences on the 27th June- the height of summer. It is evident that this day is one that creates much angst amongst the 300 villagers, immediately putting the reader on edge. The adults gather awkwardly in the town square while the children run to and fro competing against each other to collect the biggest pile of stones. It isn’t until Old Man Warner quotes the proverb: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon", that the reader gets the essence that The Lottery is part of some traditional harvest ritual, a lottery that you wouldn’t necessarily want to win. I won’t write much more than this on the story, but the phrase ‘it isn’t fair’ resonates much deeper within me that it ever did before.

What exactly was Jacksons’ intention in writing this ‘darling’ of a short story? Perhaps it was a comment on the pointlessness of human nature and violence. This is perfectly plausible, but I think it may have a deeper, much more poignant comment to make- that tradition is not necessarily a benchmark for the way we should live our lives. Just because that’s the way it has always been done, doesn’t mean that is the way it should continue to be done- hence the fact that another village in the North are talking of giving The Lottery up altogether. The real message of this tale is, I believe, that humanity needs to adapt, if it is to evolve. 

Quite thought-provoking for a little digested read that I didn’t intend to fully commit myself to. 

Written by Robert Horton

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