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Shirley Jackson and Horror Genre to Critique Dystopian Tendencies in Society

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Shirley Jackson uses “The Lottery” as an allegory for the dystopic inclinations in society, as well as utilising features of the horror genre to emphasise the harsh depictions of violence displayed. Publishing this story close to the Holocaust was retrospective and reflected on highlighted the unbridled nature of justifying an act of brutality. Furthermore, “The Lottery” commentates on the violence of tradition and justifying acts of barbaric violence due to their position of being a traditional part of culture. Jackson also underlines the common theme of harmony and violence which inextricably run together despite their juxtaposing nature, one often being masked as the other to justify their means. Encompassing this is the overarching theme of dystopia which sets a precedent on their survival.

Jackson uses the theme of tradition as a commanding force for maintaining dystopia in society. The townspeople talk of “planting and rain, tractors and taxes” (Jackson 412) whilst awaiting their fate of life or death. The dull litany displayed here whilst waiting suggests the lottery is yet another thing which belongs on this list. The mundane nature of their talk and the upcoming lottery fare no difference to them, as reinforced by Patrick J. Shields, “The group experience then lowers the level of consciousness. Therefore, the base actions exhibited in groups…people classify their heinous act simply as “ritual” .(Shields 415)

Furthermore, throughout the story, a third person narrative is maintained, with little insight into the village population’s thoughts apart from body language and dialogue. Without this insight, there is little evidence of their resistance against conformity to the lottery, adding to the horror element of a seeming sense of normalcy to the event. Furthermore, a traditional plot structure is maintained, jarring with the gruesome murder about to be committed.

Tradition is encouraged, taking shape even in childhood, evidenced by “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example” (Jackson 2) The sibilance of “stuffed” and “stones” emphasises his appetite for this, Shields reinforcing, “..Guilty of accepting custom and tradition.. Many of us are socialized into this process from such a young age that it goes without examination”. (Shields 418)

Furthermore, the imagery evoked by a past recollection of their “perfunctory, tuneless chant” (Jackson 3) evokes a jarring, haunted atmosphere which highlights the foreboding terror of the tale.

Furthermore, the proceedings in “The Lottery” evoke real life incidents, which emphasises the cruelty of humanity often explored in horror, both on and off the page. “The Lottery’s” publication date of 1948 provides a reflection of its dystopic aspects of the story onto recent events, notably the Holocaust. This highlights its poignancy especially when observed in a contextual manner. By publishing close to the conclusion of the Holocaust, three years after the surrender of Germany to the Western Allies (Robinson 36) it posed as a key critique against the dystopian extermination of citizens, justified by parliamentary members of the nation. The nature of the Holocaust, which utilised barbaric techniques to use discriminatory practices against those of a particular religion, rings familiarity in “The Lottery”, posed as a method of necessary extermination to retain order in society.

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Furthermore, Tessie’s cries for help evoke a horror element, with the climax of violence at the conclusion of the story, at the “center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her.” (Jackson 8) Her implied death adds a foreboding conclusion, and Robinson expounds on this, “horror builds in the tension between this unadorned style and the high drama of Tessie’s fruitless efforts to save herself in the face of her neighbours’ disregard for her life and their complicity in the process.”(Robinson 36)

Jackson uses collusion to display the prevalence of violence being masked as peace in society. The structure of the story compliments this, following a violent twist to a seemingly peaceful but slowly masochistic tale. Despite this, the tension rife throughout the story alludes us to darker forbearing. Though the narration does not glean us into the village peoples thoughts, if they can justify their violent actions which is reflected by their thoughts, we are “presented with a moral and ethical scene and sit as judge and jury” (Shields 416)

Furthermore, Jackson also executes this by subverting genre conventions, providing an ironic twist to the title “The Lottery”, an event usually associated with good fortune and deeds. In the opposite vein, she aims to fool the reader and shroud expectations of the story to later trick. With the playfulness found at the beginning of the short story among the children playing, acts of childlike behaviour are later found to be those of rash violence. As they “eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square” (Jackson 2) children gravitated to, “selecting the smoothest and roundest stones”(Jackson 2). This delicate imagery takes a caring, for elaborate care of the specific shape and size of the stones. This childlike attentiveness contrasts with the eventual weaponizing of the objects. Furthermore, this has a typical horror element of suspense, the fate of these stones delegated to simple child’s play or a grander part of the story.

Later these same stones are used as objects of destruction, furthermore using these same children to participate in adult behaviour, a contrast from the seemingly juvenile behaviour exhibited earlier. Children are now encouraged to be complicit in the violence, “Someone gave little Davey Hutchinson a few pebbles”. This is reinforced by Bailey, highlighting “an element of perpetuating the lottery for future generations…now there is no way he can later back out of the tradition and claim that others had killed his mother, for he too had joined in.” (Bailey 37) The encouraged participation ensures the repetitive nature of tradition.

Additionally, a note of tension is running throughout, one we later realise is that of nervousness and quiet terror rather than that of hopeful anticipation and excitement.

Ultimately “The Lottery” poses as a criticism of methods of dystopia inflicted on society, as evidenced by its jarring familiarity to the Holocaust especially when compared to its date of publication, the use of contrasting elements of peace and violence Using tactics commonly used when writing horror, such as suspense, a foreboding tone, and brutality, it reinforces the violence in not only their actions, but their minds too.

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Shirley Jackson and Horror Genre to Critique Dystopian Tendencies in Society. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/shirley-jackson-and-horror-genre-to-critique-dystopian-tendencies-in-society/
“Shirley Jackson and Horror Genre to Critique Dystopian Tendencies in Society.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/shirley-jackson-and-horror-genre-to-critique-dystopian-tendencies-in-society/
Shirley Jackson and Horror Genre to Critique Dystopian Tendencies in Society. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/shirley-jackson-and-horror-genre-to-critique-dystopian-tendencies-in-society/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
Shirley Jackson and Horror Genre to Critique Dystopian Tendencies in Society [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/shirley-jackson-and-horror-genre-to-critique-dystopian-tendencies-in-society/
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