A Review of Shirley Jackson's Different Literary Works

Categories: Shirley Jackson

Shirley Hardie Jackson was born on December 14, 1916, in Sacramento, California (Shirley 2.) Shirley and her family resided in a little suburb called Burlingame, California that would end up as the setting in her first novel, The Road through the Wall, published in 1948.

The family soon moved to Rochester, New York, and Shirley began to attend Brighton High School. She graduated in 1934 and attended the University of Rochester before switching to Syracuse University to get her B.A. in 1940. Syracuse University opened doors for Jackson as she got involved in the local literary magazine.

Through this activity, Jackson met her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who, oddly enough, became a huge literary critic. The couple, after they married, then moved on to Vermont where Jackson’s husband became a professor at Bennington College. Meanwhile Jackson continued to publish her literary works. (Shirley 1)

Interestingly enough, some of Jackson’s early works had a strange correlation to a mysterious event that happened on her husband’s college campus.

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On December 1, 1946 college sophomore, Paula Jean Weldon disappeared from campus and was never found. To this day the case remains unsolved. Jackson’s novel, Hangsaman, and her short story, “The Missing Girl,” both seem to stem from this incident.

Jackson and Hyman both seemed to be raging social butterflies and excellent hosts. They loved to mingle in the literary society an even kept company with people like Ralph Ellison. They both loved to read and had over 100,000 books in their personal library (I know the feeling.I) Together they had four children that they adored; Laurence, Joanne, Sarah and Barry.

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Jackson often used her children as models and inspirations for her fictional characters in her short stories (Shirley 1).

Jackson has become a famous and idolized American author whose novels and short stories are hauntingly beautiful and send chills through the bodies of the readers who can’t seem to get enough of her. Some of her famous works include “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Jackson is an inspiration to many authors of today including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson. (Shirley 1)

Sadly, Shirley Jackson died of a heart failure in 1965. She was forty-eight years old. She died peacefully in her sleep and her intriguing and mystifying tales will go on to haunt the next generation of readers.

Shirley Jackson wrote more short stories than she did anything else. Her most famous short stories are all bundled up nicely in a book called The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. I chose three of these stories to discuss, “Trial by Combat,” “The Witch,” and of course “The Lottery.”

“Trial by Combat” is a sad, heart wrenching story if you know what you are reading. It is about this woman named Emily Johnson who lives in an apartment and realizes one day that her stuff keeps going missing. She knows who is doing and she pays this person a visit. It is sweet Mrs. Allen from the room below. When Emily confronts her, she finds that her thief is a sad old woman whose military husband has died and left her with no children and no family. Emily ends up getting caught snooping through Mrs. Allen’s room where she finds all of her missing stuff. Mrs. Allen doesn’t even realize that she has done anything wrong. The whole story is centered on this young woman whose husband is in the military and she meets what is potentially going to be her is thirty five years. It is a really sad realization. The story is told from a third-person limited point-of-view where the narrator conveys the inner thoughts of one person throughout the whole story. In this case that would be Emily, the protagonist. Throughout the entire story the reader is experiencing every thought, feeling, and action that Emily has through this third person limited point-of view.

“The Witch” is an interesting and macabre story of a family riding on a train, a mother and two children, a little boy and a baby girl. The little boy is trying to get his mother to pay attention to him by talking about how he chased a witch away when all of a sudden an elderly man comes and starts to talk to the boy. The man tells him about his little sister and how pretty and nice she is. The man gave her presents and lollipops. It sounds like a cute little story, right? Wrong! The man goes on to tell the boy how he strangled his sister to death, cut her into pieces, and fed her head to a bear. The mother chases the man off and as she tells her son that he was teasing, the boy say “Prob’ly he was a witch”. (Jackson Pg. 67) This story is intriguing because it describes the societal norms and behaviors between adults and children. The mother reacts with panic and disgust because that is the societal norm. When someone comes in and disrupts the peace and complacency that you have so carefully constructed, it is instinct to lash out, banish and pretend that the disturbance did not exist. The little boy, on the other hand, reacted with excitement and curiosity because in society boredom is cured by an adventure into an imaginative fantasy. This story is told in third-person limited point-of-view as well. Throughout the story the reader is seeing through the eyes and mind of the little boy and only the little boy. The reader is experiencing his boredom, his excitement, and his wonder as her is feeling them.

Shirley Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery” was written about three years after World War II and it has been pointed out numerous times that Jackson may have written it as a response to the violence and thoughtless dehumanization that World War II (namely The Holocaust) was known for (DollKennedy.) The story goes like this: On a nice summer’s day, an entire village comes to a gathering in the center of its town. All of the children collect stones to bring and put them in a pile. Today is the day of the lottery. It is discussed that many villages have given up the lottery, but tradition is important to this village. No one must stray from tradition. Each family is called up to draw a piece of paper from the old wooden box. No one must look at the paper until everyone has one. Once everyone has one they open the papers and it is revealed that Bill Hutchinson has the special one. His wife complains profusely that this is unfair because her husband did not have sufficient time to pick a paper. Because Bill has five people in his family, five pieces of paper are put back in the box. They each draw another piece of paper and it is revealed that Bill’s wife has a black dot on her paper. She complains again about how unfair it is before she is hit in the head with a rock. The entire village hurries to grab their stones, and they stone her to death. This story is told through a third-person objective point of-view in which the narrator is an outside neutral observer of the vents being laid out. I found this rather strange since the story is supposed to be shocking that the narrator would be a neutral outsider.

The major themes of this work seem to be the dangers of tradition and hypocrisy. The villagers are blindly following a tradition that has been going on for centuries and they do not even remember why it started. They are okay with killing someone, a mother, brother, sister, aunt, because tradition says so. I think Jackson is making a statement against those who follow tradition just because it is tradition and not because it actually means something to them. The villagers do not even understand the meaning of what they are doing they just know that they have always done it so they must continue to do it. The second theme, hypocrisy, is evident in Tessie when she is willing to stone anyone else in the village who gets picked but when it is her that gets picked than the lottery is not fair. Jackson is showing her readers that hypocrisy always has a price and maybe that life is not always fair, especially to those who do not deserve it.

Lenemaja Friedman wrote a critical biography of Jackson where she states that Jackson said that most of the letters she received about the lottery “wanted to know where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.” (Friedman Humanity has a morbid fascination with death and destruction whether they realize it or not. When there is a car accident, many people feel compelled to slow down and look. Jackson’s short story seems to be another, more “in your face” example of this.

Kristi Unziker wrote an interesting article based on Friedman’s work and said “Isn’t it funny that Jackson gives us a description of our nature, and not only do we not recognize it for what it is, but it shocks us (Unziker).” She writes about the selfishness of Tessie and how she did not care for her children and would rather one of them die instead of her. Does this make it poetic justice and irony that she ends up with the black dot at the end?

John Walden also wrote a critical essay about the lottery which I strongly disagree with. He compares Tessie. Bill’s wife, to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins and hell. Tessie, likewise, dies to save the rest of the village from suffering. (Walden) If this was true then, why was Tessie cool with stoning her neighbors? When she was chosen she replied, “It isn’t fair.” Tessie is no savior or saint. She merely picked the wrong slip of paper and died for it. She does not show any brave of heroic characteristics that could say she was anything but a scared and weak woman.

However, despite the faults of Tessie, I do find Shirley Jackson’s stories to be worth reading because she uncovers truths that humanity would rather keep hidden. She tells stories of the brutality, the ignorance, and the pitifulness of mankind and it is eye opening to see how these things are portrayed through story. Mankind is not all good and I think Jackson really captures the bad in humanity without being insulting. She shows us who we really are but you only know if you are looking deeper into the text and analyzing the “hidden” meanings behind it. I find her stories fantastic.

This story is unlike all of the books we have read in class but it most reminds me of Their Eyes were Watching God because it is hugely focused on tradition. The tradition of the wooden box, of drawing out slips of paper/wood, even the tradition of the lottery itself is important. In this way, there is the tradition of the dominant male in Their Eyes were Watching God. Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake all assume this role of dominant male which in this society is tradition. Janie does not conform to the submissive female role which confuses all three men because she is tampering with and changing long-set traditions.

Works Cited

  1. DollKennedy. “The Lottery.” enotes. N.P. 2015. Web. 7 April 2015.
  2. Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. Canada. HarperCollinsCanadaLtd. 1982. Print.
  3. Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. Print.
  4. “Shirley Jackson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10, March, 2015. Web. 6 April 2015.
  5. “Shirley Jackson Biography.” Bio. A&E Television Networks. 2015. Web. 06 April 2015.
  6. Unziker, Kristi. “The Lesser Evil.” N.P N.D. Web. 27 April 2015.
  7. Walden, John. “Critical Essays by John Walden.” Electric Library. 1996. Web. 7 April 2015.

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A Review of Shirley Jackson's Different Literary Works. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-review-of-shirley-jackson-s-different-literary-works-essay

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