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The early forties in American history was a time in which people were less tolerant of anything outside of what society had deemed proper. As our country experienced many great tragedies-the injustice of which was the inspiration for many of Shirley Jackson’s stories-Jackson emerged as one of the most controversial authors in American history. Female writers were still trying to make an impact on the literary world, and many literary outlets were critical of the work that women published. Jackson’s style of writing challenged the conservative ways that were practiced by many in the 1940’s and made her stories notable works of fiction. Jackson’s use of irony, symbolism, and foreshadowing propel her stories forward and help to ensnare the reader into a theme of frightening yet alluring anecdotes, especially in her story “The Lottery.”
Set in a small New England town, “The Lottery” is an ironic story of human injustice that perpetuates the archaic tradition of stoning one member of the community every year to guarantee a good harvest. Jackson uses irony to turn this seemingly innocent day of small town camaraderie into something much more sinister and horrific. The scene opens on a bright and sunny day with children gathered in the town square where their parents soon join them. There is a feeling of anticipation as the townspeople congregate in the center of town and begin to seek out the faces of those who have yet to arrive. When Mr. Summers, the grand master of the event, says, “guess we better get started, get this over with, so’s we can go back to work” (Jackson 215), it is a form of verbal irony found throughout the story that gives the impression that this community event is extremely mundane and the villagers just want to complete the task and return to their work. Another character, Mrs. Hutchinson, comes onto the scene, obviously in a hurry fearing that she might be late. This occurrence leads the reader to believe that this is a coveted event, and everyone wants to be in attendance. The contrast in the meaning of these two statements makes it difficult to determine whether the crowd is excited about the event-as first implied by the atmosphere in the opening scene-or just ready to have it over and done with, so they can continue with their day.
Jackson’s use of symbolism is another tactic that she uses to create an uneasy feeling as the reader draws nearer to the climax of the story. For most of the story, the focus is on setting up the scene with the illusion of happy children playing and their parents joining them in the center of town. Jackson spends a great deal of time explaining the history of the lottery and the condition and preparation of the inauspicious black box that is being placed on a three legged stool by Mr. Summers. There is not much said about the actual lottery and what it represents nor is there much told about the emotions of the people until the drawing begins. In an article written by Joan Hall, the three legged stool could be interpreted as the Greek tripod of prophecy and the black box as a representation of Pandora’s Box of woes. This interpretation gives a meaning to these two objects, providing the reader with an alternate interpretation or a new lens with which to view the events of “The Lottery.”
There are many tactics that writers can use to delay the reader’s awareness of what is truly going on in the story. Jackson’s purposefully vague use of foreshadowing makes the reader believe that one thing is happening, but as the story progresses, these small bits of information give the reader pause to contemplate the subtle hints of a more sinister reality. The hesitation of the men, when Mr. Summers asks, “Some of you fellows want to give me a hand?”(Jackson 214), shows that there is some trepidation about the box. Jackson is careful not to imply too much early on in the story that may give away the ending. The citizens of this small town come together and participate willingly in a tradition that they already know will result in the death of a friend or family member. Jackson cleverly disguises the hesitation that many of the townspeople must feel at the prospect of a loved one’s death. The snipets of conversation going on around the scene seem to be casual and lighthearted, until the conclusion of the story nears and the reader wonders if those instances are just nervous actions.
Many of Jackson’s stories were not published in her lifetime. Stanley Edgar Hyman-Jackson’s husband-put together a collection of her unfinished works and published them one year after her death of heart failure in 1965 at the age of 45 (Bloom). Jackson’s style of writing has, however, made her works significant and well- read because, as Janet Ball says in her biography of Ms. Jackson, “whether the theme is dark or lightâ€¦.she mastered the technique of presenting the ordinary in an extraordinary way.” Jackson presents to the reader entertaining stories with attention-grabbing plots. “The Lottery” is one of the most controversial of Ms. Jackson’s stories because of the explicit conclusion that shocks the reader and ends before the reality of what just happened is clear. The injustice that is the fate of Ms. Hutchinson “depicts the thoughtless perpetuation of evil traditions” that made “The Lottery” so widely read (Ball). Jackson has mastered the art of applying irony to her stories to keep the reader guessing at the actual meaning of this vicious tale. The use of symbolism that Jackson utilizes to give the story a more in-depth meaning requires knowledgeable contemplation. Jackson provides a great deal of background information about the box and makes a point to let the reader see the reaction of the characters when asked to assist with the box. The most elusive of Jackson’s techniques is her deliberately vague use of foreshadowing, which gives the story an illusion of a tranquil and normal setting, belying the wickedness of the reality that emerges at the tale’s shocking culmination.
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