There was a huge reaction to "The Lottery" when it was first published. This short story was even censored in some schools! Read on to learn more about why the story was so controversial.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is a remarkable story now and had a great impact when it was initially published. When published in The New Yorker, it had a greater reaction than any story up to that time and that powerful reaction has continued. It has been banned from many schools, libraries and even South Africa. Others have called it one of the best stories of the 20th century. Understanding this criticism of "The Lottery" can help the reader to understand the story by shedding light on the meanings behind this story as well as making it clear what the story isn’t saying.
The American Public
The response of the readers of The New Yorker was described as greater than any story previously published and was largely negative. Many canceled their subscription to the magazine and there was a significant amount of mail expressing both confusion and anger.
The primary concern was the portrayal of small town America. Many seemed baffled by the attack on their values and insisted that they did not regularly stone people to death. This reception was a shock both to Shirley Jackson and The New Yorker. This is because the point of this story is not to attack small town values, but to point out that inhumanity can exist even in those places that are considered safe. In fact, it was likely that small town America was picked because there are few places the readers of The New Yorker would feel safer.
One of the most dramatic of the responses was the Union of South Africa. The nation banned the story completely. When she heard of this, Shirley Jackson’s only response was that at least they understood the story. This was most certainly a response to those who had misunderstood the story as an attack on small town America. It was also one of the few clear hints the author gave as to the point of the story. It is almost certain that South Africa banned this story because they felt it to be an anti-apartheid story. If this was banned because it was an attack on brutal and unquestioned traditions, like apartheid, it is difficult to consider this banning as anything but a positive endorsement of the meaning of the story.
The general response of critics is split largely based on how the each critic read the story. Those who read this as a traditional story are not all that kind to it. They cite uneven dialog, flat characters and other weaknesses in the narration. The majority, though, recognize this as a modern-day parable rather than a traditional narrative. In this way the critics are able to compare the story not to traditional stories but to other stories meant to be symbolic and these critics generally rate the story more favorably.
The other question every critic must consider is what the story means. The only real consensus on this point is that the exact meaning of the story is not possible. There is even a question by some as to whether the story is meant to have an exact meaning. Yet, many critics also agree it is the discussion the story encourages which gives it much of its value rather than a complete understanding.
The question of censorship of "The Lottery" appears to be one largely of the moods of the time. For nearly thirty years after it was published this story was rarely censored by schools. In 1985 this changed with the rise in censorship groups, and it reached the top 48 most censored stories. The reasons for this vary, but it is often because people understand the story as an attack on tradition for the sake of tradition. This can make many people, especially those who believe in those traditions, uncomfortable. More recently the story has been banned less as the themes of this story have become more popular, but there are still many schools in which teachers and librarians are not allowed to give this story to their students.
The reaction of the public to this story and the meaning of the story itself was something that Shirley Jackson rarely commented on. She refused to discuss the meaning of her work or publicize her stories, often turning down interviews. She gave only two real comments on the story. The first being the previously mentioned statement that South Africa understood the meaning, and a comment that she found it difficult to express its meaning outside of the story. This reluctance of the author to comment on the story is partially responsible for some critics dismissal of the story and failure to probe further to understand its meaning.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is far too important a story to be considered anything but a classic. This is a story that demands a reaction from its reader and almost always gets one. In many cases this reaction is one of anger towards both the story and the author. Other times the reaction is one of revelation. In both cases what is important is that it takes the reader on an intellectual journey. A journey that begins with a story which is very realistic and ends in a situation that feels as dark and surreal as the any horror story.