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Shirley Jackson wrote several best-selling novels, but she is usually identified with ”The Lottery,” a classic short story that established her literary reputation as an author of gothic horror fiction. This frequently anthologized tale of victimization exemplifies the central themes of Jackson’s fiction, which include ordinary yet grotesque realities as prejudice, psychological malaise, loneliness, and cruelty. in works that often contain elements of conventional gothic horror, Jackson chronicles the universal evil underlying human nature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Jackson was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1916, to Leslie Hardie Jackson and Geraldine Bugbee Jackson. She started writing poetry and keeping a journal at an early age. in 1934, the Jacksons moved to Rochester, New York, where Jackson enrolled in the University of Rochester. She withdrew after two years to spend a year pursuing her career as a writer, but she later returned to school and attended Syracuse University for two years (from 1938 to 1940). During this time she published several pieces of fiction and nonfiction in campus magazines. At Syracuse she met Stanley Edgar Hyman, whom she married in 1940; together they founded one of the campus magazines, The Spectre.
After graduation and marriage, Jackson moved to New York City. Her first national publication came in 1941 when The New Republic printed ”My Life with R. H. Macy,” a short story based on her experiences working at Macy’s Department Store. She continued to publish short stories regularly over the next few years and also gave birth to a son, Laurence, and a daughter, Joanne.
Ensuring Her Reputation
In 1945 Jackson and her family left New York City for Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman had a teaching position. She published more short stories, including ”The Lottery” in 1948. That same year, Jackson’s first novel, The Road through the Wall (1948), was published, followed a year later by a collection of short stories, The Lottery, or, The Adventures of James Harris (1949). Two more children were born: Sarah in 1948 and Barry in 1951.
The Road Through the Wall is Jackson’s only novel set in suburban California, in a neighborhood much like the one in which she grew up. it features several households on the same block and the rather spiteful interactions between the individuals and families that live there. The characters’ lives reflect a certain moral bankruptcy, which is passed from parents to children. The novel was received with moderate acclaim and demonstrated that Jackson could sustain reader interest in the novel form. on June 28 of that year the New Yorker printed ”The Lottery.” The story occasioned so much public outcry that Jackson’s reputation—and notoriety—were assured from then on.
The Lottery, or, The Adventures of James Harris was the only one of Jackson’s short-story collections to be published during her lifetime. The title story, ”The Lottery,” is, in short, her masterpiece, and it has garnered a considerable amount of attention. As soon as it was published, literally hundreds of letters deluged the offices of The New Yorker, more than any other story had generated before. The letters were overwhelmingly negative, expressing, as Jackson said in ”Biography of a Story,” published in Come Along With Me (1968), ”bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse.” Jackson also noted tellingly, ”People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.”
The plot is deceptively simple: all the action takes place on a sunny afternoon in an average little American town. Tessie Hutchinson arrives late for the annual town lottery, which at first appears to be a rather festive event. The true horror of the rite is gradually exposed through the villagers’ nervousness and reluctance until, in the end, Tessie, terrified and desperately defiant, stands revealed as the lottery winner and is summarily stoned to death by the populace.
Addressing Mental Pathology
In her second novel, Hangsaman (1951), Jackson writes about a young woman who is perilously close to psychological disintegration. Interpretations of the book vary, depending upon whether the reader accepts the main character’s companion as real or imagined. Because of this ambiguity, the book received mixed reviews. Whatever Jackson intended in Hangsaman, she clearly set out to fictionalize a dissociated personality in The Bird’s Nest (1954). This book was the fruit of Jackson’s extensive study of mental illness, and the multiple personality of her character, Elizabeth-Beth-Betsy-Bess, is based on an actual case history she turned up in the course of her research.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased film rights and eventually made a movie of The Bird’s Nest. The film was released in 1957 under the title Lizzie. Jackson’s fame received another boost when MGM purchased film rights to a novel published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House. The movie, The Haunting, was released in 1963. In this book, the themes of isolation, loneliness, and emotional deterioration are explored through the character of a young unmarried woman named Eleanor.
Jackson returns to the theme of psychological pathology in her last completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Writing in the first person, a technique she otherwise rarely employed, Jackson develops the central character of Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat), a sociopathic girl who, at the age of twelve, poisoned four members of her family, including her mother and father, with arsenic. The exploration of the mind of this bizarre and oddly pathetic character is considered by many to be Jackson’s finest fictional achievement. Certainly the novel is more consistently successful than any of her previous works, sustaining a tone that can only be described as eerily poetic. Almost universally recognized as her finest novel, it was nominated for the National Book Award. It became a bestseller and was adapted for a Broadway production. The play had a short run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1966.
Not all of Jackson’s stories were explorations of evil, however; she wrote several stories she termed ”pot-boilers,” which were essentially slightly fictionalized versions of her domestic life. (She often did not even bother to change the names of her family members.) Centering on family squabbles, they were published regularly in women’s magazines, such as Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Home Companion. Jackson herself did not put much value on these stories, distinguishing them from her serious fiction. She claimed in a letter to her parents that she wrote these stories ”simply for money.” Many of these stories were later collected into the books Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957).
Jackson died suddenly of heart failure in 1965. She had been active during her last years, delivering lectures at colleges and writers’ conferences; three of the lectures are included in the same volume with the novel she was working on at the time of her death, Come Along With Me (1968). Jackson’s next collection of unpublished short fiction, Just An Ordinary Day, did not appear until 1997, when previously unpublished and uncollected stories were interwoven and edited by her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart. The stories cover the same themes as those in her other collections, running the gamut from humorous domestic pieces to tales of twisted psyches and supernatural horror.
Works in Literary Context
In Jackson’s body of work, humankind is more evil than good, profoundly misguided and seemingly incapable of enlightenment. Lacking either the capacity to reason or the strength to act upon moral convictions, individuals are dictated by habit and convention. They often behave with callous disregard of those around them. Yet, even in the novels and stories that deal almost exclusively with the private worlds of individuals, the isolation of these lonely figures is intensified by the sense that the world surrounding them is cruel and peopled with weak or malignant characters. Emotional warmth and closeness are rare in Jackson’s fictional universe; there is little to sustain a healthy personality. Thus, it can be said that Jackson’s body of work is representative of both gothic and dystopian literature, or literature that features a world that is problem-filled and bleak.
Gothic literature is generally marked by elements of magic, mystery, and horror. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) was the originator of the form, with its medieval castle, trap doors, dark stairways, and mysterious rooms. Contemporary gothic literature usually features a medieval atmosphere of brooding and unknown terror. The combination of realism and horror is also indicative of gothic literature. In Jackson’s body of work, psychological dissections of the darkness in human souls—the fear, loneliness, and hatred of the other that both cause and are the result of human evil—serve as the basis for her particular gothic style. In addition, the titular mansion of The Haunting of Hill House is much like the menacing structures found in classic works of gothic fiction, as are its paranormal occurrences.
The term “dystopia” refers to a future world in which contemporary problems have expanded to intensely unpleasant ends. Jackson’s ”The Lottery” is a perfect example of a dystopia. The story is about the reenactment in contemporary society of an ancient scapegoat ritual. The juxtaposition of the savage and the modern works to unsettle the reader and lays the foundation for its dystopic ending. A public stoning performed in the town square of an otherwise peaceful community communicates a powerful shock to the reader, an effect heightened by Jackson’s unemotional narrative style. A modern fable, ”The Lottery” reveals men and women to be timid, conformist, callous, and cruel. For example, while there is some resistance to the lottery, it is only voiced indirectly and never acted upon. Even Tessie, who perhaps displays an unspoken resistance to the lottery by showing up late, only protests when her family is chosen.
Works in Critical Context
With her frequent appearances in story anthologies, Jackson has never been far from the minds of scholars. Her short story ”The Lottery” has been interpreted in several ways. Its symbolism, for instance, has been carefully scrutinized for its religious meanings. The story has been read as an attack on a capitalistic society, or as a feminist assault on an inherently patriarchal system. One of the wonders of the story is that it can sustain so many interpretations and still retain, decades after its original publication, the power to shock, enlighten, and entertain. Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle was praised especially for its imaginative treatment of its narrator and main character, Merricat, who is far removed from a textbook sociopath and made into a believable, even sympathetic, character.
In her Library Journal review of ”The Lottery,” Erica Bauermeister writes, ”(the story is) a memorable and terrifying masterpiece, fueled by a tension that creeps up on you slowly without any clear indication of why.” Other critics cite Jackson’s ability to tap into readers’ most basic fears. James Hilton of the Herald Tribune writes that ”The Lottery” and other stories ”remind one of the elemental terrors of childhood.” A Newsweek contributor wrote of the collection: ”In her art, as in her life, Shirley Jackson was an absolute original. She listened to her own voice, kept her own counsel, isolated herself from all intellectual and literary currents. . . . She was unique.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Jackson’s last published novel before her death, was received warmly by critics and readers alike. An unnamed reviewer for the New York Times Book Review writes that the book is ”A marvelous elucidation of life … a story full of craft and full of mystery.” A reviewer for the New York Times calls the book ”A witch’s brew of eerie power and startling novelty.”
- Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne, 1975.
- Hall, Joan Wylie. Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
- Allen, Barbara. ”A Folkloristic Look at Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.”’ Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 46 (December 1980): 119-124.
- Kosenko, Peter. ”A Marxist/Feminist Reading of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.”’ New Orleans Review 12 (Spring 1985): 27-32.
- Nebeker, Helen E. ”’The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force.” American Literature 46 (March 1974): 100-107.
- Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. ”The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning and Context in ‘The Lottery.”’ Essays in Literature 15 (Fall 1988): 259-265.
- Parks, John G. ”The Possibility of Evil: A Key to Shirley Jackson’s Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 15 (Summer 1978): 320-323.
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