The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | 10 Things You Didn't Know


In June 1948 the New Yorker published the story that would generate the most mail in the publication's history. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" lives up to the hype and is, without a doubt, one of the most famous and most controversial short stories in the history of American literature.

This brief tale, comprising fewer than 3,500 words, seems at first to recount an innocuous annual event in small-town America. As the story unfolds, readers suspect sinister undertones to this old-fashioned ritual. The story's brutal ending shocked readers far and wide, leading hundreds to lash out against the author in anger and confusion.

A month after the story's publication, Jackson responded to her story's critics, explaining that she hoped to shock her readers with a "graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." The controversy behind "The Lottery" has ensured that Shirley Jackson's name is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. Her most famous work has been reprinted countless times and adapted for radio, television, film, ballet, theater, and opera.

1. The town in "The Lottery" was inspired by North Bennington, Vermont.

Jackson was living in North Bennington when she wrote "The Lottery," and she remained there until her death in 1965. When asked once how she came up with the story, she responded, "I was just thinking about my neighbors." Apparently, the people of North Bennington treated Jackson and her husband as outsiders. As the New York Times reviewer of a 1988 biography of Jackson wrote, "She hated and feared them ... they called her a Communist, a witch, an atheist and a Jew."

2. Jackson claimed that writing "The Lottery" was a breeze.

In her essay "Biography of a Story," Jackson recalls the creation of her most famous story. According to Jackson, the idea for "The Lottery" came to her when she was pushing her daughter up a hill in her stroller one day in June 1948. When she got home, she wrote the story in a couple of hours, making only a few small corrections before sending it off to her agent.

3. According to Jackson, the editor of the New Yorker asked to make only one small change to "The Lottery."

A week after the story had been written, Jackson received a call from the fiction editor of the New Yorker. The editor asked for only one small revision—that the date mentioned in the story be changed to more closely match the date of the issue, June 26, in which the story would appear. The story takes place on June 27.

4. Shirley Jackson's own account of writing "The Lottery" was probably not entirely true.

According to William Brennan, writing for Slate, "Jackson's account of writing and editing the story is, it turns out, another myth." Brennan pored over Jackson's papers at the Library of Congress and discovered that a draft of "The Lottery" was reviewed by different New Yorker editors in March and April 1948 (she claimed she had not written the story until June). One letter, dated April 9, suggests a number of revisions to the story.

5. Jackson had to upgrade to a bigger post office box to make room for all the hate mail she received.

Shirley Jackson received around 300 letters the summer "The Lottery" was published. Many readers were horrified by her story, and some called her "gratuitously disagreeable" and "perverted." Others demanded explanations. Some even were traumatized: "I read it while soaking in the tub ... and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all," wrote one letter writer.

6. Shirley Jackson even received hate mail from her own mother.

Jackson's mother wrote to her:

Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker. 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?

7. Some readers thought "The Lottery" was a true story.

At the time, the New Yorker did not label stories as fiction or nonfiction, leading some readers to assume that Jackson was reporting on actual events in "The Lottery." According to Jackson, some letter writers wanted to know where these lotteries were held—and even whether they could go there and watch. A reader from Kansas asked, "Will you please tell me the locale and the year of the custom?"

8. "The Lottery" was banned in South Africa.

According to Shirley Jackson's husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, "She was always proud that the Union of South Africa banned 'The Lottery,' and she felt that they at least understood the story." In 1948 the country established apartheid, a system of legally enforced racial segregation that limited the rights of its black citizens—a system that ended in 1994.

9. "The Lottery" was referenced on an episode of The Simpsons.

In the 1992 Simpsons episode "Dog of Death," Kent Brockman announces on the evening news that people, in a misguided effort to figure out how to win the lottery, have borrowed every copy of Jackson's "The Lottery" from the local library. Homer throws his own copy of the book into the fireplace after Brockman reveals that, "Of course, the book does not contain any hints on how to win the lottery. It is, rather, a chilling tale of conformity gone mad."

10. "The Lottery" was adapted into a ballet—with a twist.

Val Caniparoli's ballet adaptation of "The Lottery" premiered in Salt Lake City in 2012. In a clever play on the story's plot line, nobody knew which of the 14 dancers would perform the eight-minute closing solo each night until the performance was almost over. The role was determined by pulling a piece of paper out of a box, of course. The dancer who pulled the paper with the black dot performed the solo. Caniparoli noted, "Ironically, the dancer with a sprained ankle keeps drawing the lot."

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