Task: How does Shirley Jackson build up suspense in the short story ‘The Lottery’?
The story ‘The Lottery’ was written by Shirley Jackson, throughout the piece the author builds up suspense towards the climax. The story takes place in a small village, where the people are close and tradition is paramount. A yearly event, called the lottery, is one in which one person in the town is randomly selected, by a drawing, to be violently stoned by friends and family. This is a traditional event that is said to encourage a good harvest. The drawing has been around for over 77 years and is practised by every member of the town.
The beginning of the story is very different to the ending, at first we have know idea what the lottery is, we do not know it is the cause of someone’s death every year, we ought to think it is a normal lottery where numbers are picked, but by the end of the story, we find we could not have been more wrong. The mood is surprisingly happy at the beginning of the story and there is a real sense of normality. This builds up suspense as we get a big surprise at the end as we finally find out that ‘The Lottery’ is not our average lottery.
Shirley Jackson withholds information from us during her story, as we are not specifically told what the lottery is. Many of the details we are given throughout “The Lottery” foreshadow the violent conclusion and climax of the story. In the second paragraph, the children put stones in their pockets and make piles of stones in the town square, which seems like children’s innocent play until the stones’ true purpose becomes clear at the end of the story. Tessie Hutchison’s late arrival to the lottery makes her stick out from the crowd, Mr Summer’s words -“Thought we were going to have to get on without you”-is almost ironic as Tessie becomes the lottery’s next victim. Mr Summers also asks Ms Watson if her son will be drawing for himself and his mother this year, and some villagers make comments such as “Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it.” This makes us suspect that maybe Mr Watson was last year’s victim of the lottery.
The author describes the setting of the story clearly to us. The day on which the lottery takes place, we are told that it is the 27th June, It’s around 10am and the temperature is warm. She describes the scene exactly, there are flowers “blossoming profusely”, and “the grass was richly green”, and the town square, where everyone gathers, is between the bank and the post office. It begins like this to give you a real sense of security. The author provides specific information about the town, including how many people live there. This information builds up suspense in the story as it does not seem like the kind of scene where someone is about to be brutally murdered by neighbours and loved ones.
There are many characters in the story but two of them play a large part in the understanding of the lottery. Mr Summers is a middle-aged, round-faced, jovial man who owns a local coal business and is the official of the lottery which takes place every summer. But despite his breezy, light-hearted name, Mr Summers wields a frightening amount of power in the village, power that seems to have been assigned to him arbitrarily. A married, childless business owner, Mr Summers is pitied by the townspeople for having a nagging wife. No one seems to question his leadership of the lottery, and it seems to have never been challenged. Perhaps he took on the role himself, or perhaps someone offered it to him. Maybe he did not have a choice, and was just appointed involuntarily. Another character who plays an important part in the story is Old Man Warner. He is said to be the oldest man in the town, at seventy-seven years of age, he lottery has been practised long before he was born. Old Man Warner is a very opinionated, old-fashioned, traditional man who does not like change and is a very strong believer of the lottery. When Mr Adams tells Old Man Warner that some nearby villages are talking about giving up the lottery, he barks back “Pack of crazy fools. Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. ” Old Man Warner is so faithful to the tradition that he fears the villagers will return to primitive times if they stop holding the lottery. As well as being well respected throughout the town, he is also slightly mocked, he comes across as an unchallengeable man who obviously believes in superstition and has taken part in the lottery for seventy-seven years, and provides us with key information we need to fully understand the story behind the lottery, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon. These characters are vital for us to understand the true meaning of the lottery.
Everyone in the story seems preoccupied and almost worships a funny-looking black box, but the old black box represents both the tradition of the lottery and the illogic of the villagers’ loyalty to it. There are consequences of blindly following tradition as we are soon aware of at the end of ‘The Lottery’. We are told the black box is nearly falling apart, after years of use and storage, but somehow the villagers are unwilling to replace it, “Mr Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.” This quotation reveals how firmly attached the villagers are in the lottery’s tradition and how threatening they find the idea of change. Jackson tells us that the black box was made up from pieces of the past black box. We learn a lot about the lottery, including the elements of the tradition that have survived or been lost. There is no reason why the villagers should be loyal to the black box yet disloyal to other relics and traditions, just as there is no logical reason why the villagers should continue holding the lottery at all.
Shirley Jackson constantly builds suspense in “The Lottery” by continuously withholding an explanation and does not reveal the true nature of the lottery until the first stone hits Tessie Hutchinson’s head. Throughout the story, we learn a lot about the lottery but not the explanation we need to piece everything together. During the build-up to the climax, we go through the entire ritual, Mr Summer’s calls out the names and the head of the family approach the box to select their papers. But Jackson never tells us what the lottery is about, or mentions any kind of purpose behind it. She begins to reveal that something is not right when the lottery begins and the crowd becomes nervous, “For a minute, no-one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. ” The author explains clearly Tessie’s protesting against her husband, Bill’s ‘winning’ paper. At first we have no idea why she is protesting against it as we think they have won a large sum of money but they have ‘won’ something worse than a jackpot. Tessie claims he did not have enough time to select the slip of his choice. But not until the moment when the first stone is thrown and hits off Mrs Hutchinson’s head does Jackson show us the true meaning to the lottery.
There is one clear theme which stands out in ‘The Lottery’ which is, the dangers of blindly following tradition. In this story we are clearly shown a consequence of these villagers by not questioning their so called belief, as it results in a violent murder each year which we are told has been practiced for decades. By withholding information from us until the last possible second, Shirley Jackson builds up great suspense throughout the story and creates a surprising, yet powerful conclusion.
Eilidh Wilkie, 3S3.