Thursday, October 6, 2011

Below the Surface

Shirley Jackson’s classic short-story The Lottery is memorable, to say the least. It is also a good example of why authors shouldn’t pay attention to bad reviews. When The Lottery was published in 1948, most reviews were negative and many readers canceled their subscription to the magazine that published it. But it is also an example of how fiction can be used to present a message.

As soon as we say a story has a message, the tendency is for people to think we’re talking about preachy writing, but the whole purpose of fiction is to present some kind of theme. Unlike non-fiction, in which the message is right there on the surface, the best place to put the message in fiction is below the surface. We do that by having a surface problem that we’re willing to talk about and a subsurface problem that is only spoken of in whispers. In The Lottery, the surface problem is this traditional gathering. Some people don’t see it as being so important. Some people are late, for one reason or another. The wooden markers have been replaced with paper. People just don’t see traditional things as important as they once did. We can all identify with that because we see traditions of the past falling by the wayside and we may wonder if anything will last.

If Shirley Jackson had wanted to preach to us, she could have said a lot about dying traditions, but that wasn’t the message of The Lottery. It takes us a while, but as we near the end of the story we come to realize that this lottery isn’t the kind of tradition we want to be a part of. This lottery is an annual sacrifice that is believed to help with crop production. The message isn’t encouragement to hold onto the old traditions. Shirley Jackson said:
Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. 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.
As she presents that message, Shirley Jackson doesn’t bring the story to a complete solution, but she points the reader to the first step to making it stop. The victim of The Lottery, as she faces her own death, takes that step by expressing how unfair she thinks it is. It appears that the lottery will continue, unless someone else is willing to take a stand against it.

That is what we should hope to find in a story. We don’t want it to preach to us about how to solve the surface problem. The characters may even fail at solving that problem, but the characters need to demonstrate that they have changed by taking that first step toward solving the deeper subsurface problem.