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The Best Outraged Reactions to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

Who knew a short story could stir up so much rage?

If you were required to read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” when you were in high school, you may have been somewhat befuddled, and perhaps even annoyed at the shocking short story. And you wouldn’t have been alone in your reaction—few short stories (even these must-read short stories) have ever stirred up the kind of outrage that “The Lottery” did upon being printed in the June 27, 1948 issue of The New Yorker

Soon after the modern horror story was first published, letters (and even phone calls) of outrage started pouring in from readers. By the time people had cooled down, The New Yorker had received more than 300 letters in response—more than any other work of fiction the magazine has ever published, according to Ruth Franklin, who wrote an essay about “The Lottery” letters.

Franklin, who also penned the first-ever authorized biography of Shirley Jackson, explained that Jackson kept all the letters she received in response to her disturbing story. Not all were hate mail, but, if the letters “could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public … I would stop writing now,” Jackson later said. Thankfully, she didn’t, or we would never have been blessed with terrifying horror books like The Haunting of Hill House, which was eventually became the Netflix adaptation of the same name.

shirley-jackson
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, not everyone hated the story—there’s a reason it’s become a high school favorite. Brendan Gill, a former staffer at The New Yorker, said “The Lottery” was “one of the best stories—two or three or four best—that the magazine ever printed.” And Harvard sociology professor Nahum Medalia had similar feelings: “It is a wonderful story, and it kept me very cold on the hot morning when I read it.”

Related: 10 Dark Books for the Literarily Disturbed

Then again, those who hated the story...really, really hated it. For those of you who haven’t read “The Lottery” (which you can do here), we’re betting these outraged, incensed and completely confused reactions will convince you to do so. Plus, at around 3775 words, or about 12-15 average book pages, it shouldn’t take you very long. But before you do, take a look at these nine reactions to the story, roughly ordered from mildly confused to majorly outraged.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
  • Photo Credit: Miss Shari / Flickr

Confused reactions to "The Lottery"

“I’m hoping you’ll find time to give me further details about the bizarre custom the story describes, where it occurs, who practices it, and why.”—a reader from Georgia

“I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?”—Regular New Yorker reader and housewife Miriam Friend

“Mr. Harold Ross, then the editor of The New Yorker, was not altogether sure that he understood the story, and wondered if I cared to enlarge upon its meaning. I said no.” —Shirley Jackson

Somewhat upset reactions to "The Lottery"

“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker . . . [I]t 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?” —Shirley Jackson’s parents, in a letter to their daughter

“Gentlemen,” she wrote, “I have read ‘The Lottery’ three times with increasing shock and horror.… Cannot decide whether [Jackson] is a genius or a female and more subtle version of Orson Welles.” —Carolyn Green, New Milford, Connecticut

“If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded.”—Alfred L. Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and father of groundbreaking science fiction author Ursula Le Guin 

“My memory is that my father was indignant at Shirley Jackson’s story because as a social anthropologist he felt that she didn’t, and couldn’t, tell us how the lottery could come to be an accepted social institution.”—Ursula Le Guin, attempting to explain her father’s reaction

Outright incensed reactions to "The Lottery"

Marion Trout, of Lakewood, Ohio, suspected that the editorial staff had become “tools of Stalin.”

“I will never buy The New Yorker again. I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’”—a reader from Massachusetts

“I read it while soaking in the tub … and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all.”—Camilla Ballou of St. Paul, Minnesota

Related: 8 Most Controversial Novels Ever Published

What was the meaning of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"?

Though Shirley Jackson wasn’t willing to explain “The Lottery” to the editor of The New Yorker, she did give an explanation to Joseph Henry Jackson, the literary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. (If you haven’t yet read “The Lottery,” go ahead and do it before reading the next paragraph!) 

In a letter to Joseph Henry Jackson, Shirley Jackson explained her story about villagers choosing slips of paper to determine who would be stone to death: “I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” 

The boilerplate response The New Yorker sent to any letter-writers was very much the same: “Miss Jackson’s story can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways. It’s just a fable.… She has chosen a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.”

Put in those terms, “The Lottery” doesn’t seem that difficult to understand after all, and the short length and powerful imagery make it an obvious choice for students to analyze (in fact, we wish we had read more books like this in high school). Did “The Lottery” have a dramatic effect on you the first time you read it? Or do you have a different interpretation of the story? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Published on 21 Oct 2015

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