BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 19, 2010
The idea for “The Lottery,” first published in 1948 and now one of the most widely anthologized works of American fiction, came to Shirley Jackson while she was pushing her baby daughter in her stroller. When they got home, she writes in an essay included in the new Library of America collection of her writings, she put away her groceries, put the baby in a playpen, and in a single sitting wrote the story, which describes, without elaboration or allegory, a village ritual in which the inhabitants gather annually to stone one of their neighbors. Her agent did not like it, but sold it to The New Yorker nonetheless. Soon after it was published, letters began to pour into the post office in the rural Vermont town where she was then living—more than three hundred of them, the most The New Yorker had ever seen for a work of fiction. Some of the letter-writers informed her that they were cancelling their subscriptions. Others wrote to express their puzzlement or to demand an explanation. But many, assuming that the story was based on fact, wanted to know where lotteries like the one Jackson described were held. “Are you describing a current custom?” asked a reader from Pennsylvania. “I have read of some queer cults in my time,” wrote a reader from Los Angeles, “but this one bothers me.”
The reactions of these first readers are oddly apt, for they point to the deep domestic undercurrent beneath all Jackson’s fiction. This may sound counterintuitive, considering her often occult subject matter: aside from “The Lottery,” she is best known for the Gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a classic horror story in which a young woman comes to a haunted house to study its paranormal phenomena and is gradually overcome by them. But starting with a story published in this magazine in 1941, when she was 25, her career spanned nearly twenty-five years (she died young, of heart failure) and included dozens of short stories and six novels, as well as two memoirs about motherhood. (She was married to the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, with whom she had four children.) The majority of the short stories, now presented together for the first time, are tales of women in distress. Sometimes just a single detail or turn of phrase pushes them over the edge of the supernatural; often everyday life is sinister enough.
Jackson’s fictional world is dominated by women: secretaries a bit past their prime and still unmarried, or mothers stuck at home with their children, longing for companionship yet terrified of their neighbors’ gossip. These stories almost always take place in interiors—houses, offices, apartments—and show a particular fascination for the efforts required in making a home: the grocery shopping, the painting and decorating, the small repairs. The men are notable mainly for their absence; it’s the women who perpetrate cruelties ranging from the petty to the shocking. In “Elizabeth,” a career woman—she is a literary agent specializing in fiction—appears to make a pact with the devil. “Flower Garden” describes two women who are the best of friends until one of them flouts unspoken town rules by hiring a black man to help her in her garden. In “Behold the Child Among His Newborn Blisses,” two mothers waiting in the pediatrician’s office join forces against a third for her peculiar handling of her retarded son, but later one of the first two demonstrates her own deeper viciousness.
Nearly a generation before The Feminine Mystique, Jackson’s stories explore the claustrophobia that often accompanies marriage and motherhood, and the desperation to which it might drive a woman. “I suppose it starts to happen first in the suburbs. … People starting to come apart,” one character muses. Interspersed among the fiction, the new collection includes also a few of the sketches that Jackson drew from her life and originally published in—of all places—Good Housekeeping. In one of these, “The Third Baby’s the Easiest,” a clerk asks Jackson, who is checking into the hospital to deliver her third child, what her occupation is. “Writer,” Jackson answers. “Housewife,” the clerk supplies. “Writer,” Jackson repeats. “I’ll just put down housewife,” the clerk tells her.
Jackson sets down these lines without bitterness in a laugh-out-loud account of labor and delivery. But they made me think of how many women writers—particularly American women writers in the postwar era, the era without servants—have both profited and suffered from the confusion of their dual role. Alice Munro has said that she began writing short stories because as a young mother she had no time to write novels: “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it's hard to arrange for large chunks of time.” Then and still now, women write when the baby naps, while the children are at school, after the dishes are done and the lunches are packed and the house is at last quiet. It teaches us a kind of efficiency, to be sure, but also a resignation to frustration: the omnipresent awareness that no matter how smoothly the thoughts are flowing, they will have to stop when the school bus comes. Munro’s first collection appeared in 1968, 20 years after a young woman in Vermont pushed her stroller home, put away her groceries, and wrote an indelible work of fiction while her baby played nearby. “The ending of this story came as quite a jolt to my wife and, as a matter of fact, she was very upset by the whole thing for a day or two after,” wrote one of Jackson’s correspondents. Maybe she had noticed that the character selected for death in “The Lottery” is a mother.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.