Analysis of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery

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Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery,” was published in 1948 and remains to this day one of the most enduring and affecting American works in the literary canon. “The Lottery” tells the story of a farming community that holds a ritualistic lottery among its citizens each year. Although the text initially presents audiences with a close-knit community participating in a social event together on a special day, the shocking twist at the work’s end—with the death of the lottery’s “winner” by public stoning—has led to its widespread popularity, public outcry and discussion, and continued examination in modern times (Jackson). One potential critical theory that can be applied to Jackson’s “The Lottery” is the reader-response approach. This analytical lens is a “theory ... that bases the critical perspective of a text on ‘the reader’ and his or her personal interpretation” of that text (Parker 314). Reader-response criticism was coined by literary critic Louise Rosenblatt in the mid-20th century. It soon served as a cornerstone of literary movement in the 1960s and 1970s that later became intrinsic to the study of other schools of literary thought today. In using reader-response theory to examine “The Lottery” in a contemporary context, one might perform reading surveys and metacognitive questionnaires to determine whether the short story still proves resonant and thought-provoking. Therefore, just as “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson evoked an explicit and even fierce reaction in the past, so too does the use of reader-response criticism today help reveal that the short story may still hold the ability to sustain both its rising tension and surprising turn at the end.

In order to adequately consider the impact that reader-response criticism can have on a text—particularly one such as “The Lottery”—a more comprehensive view of the literary theory is needed. Reader-response criticism enables the audience, or reader, to construct meaning or interpretation of a work based on both textual evidence and that reader’s personal experience. While textual support is still important to this theoretical approach, the lens also highlights the importance of a reader’s personal application of the text, as well as his or her metacognitive learning abilities (Parker 318). In this sense, reader-response recognizes the reader as an active agent in a text’s interpret...

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...its portrayal of both the present and future, I tend to look at it in a more positive manner. Although it is true that there are bad practices, cruel people, and harsh laws in existence around the world today (even if many are not at the same extreme levels of stoning), there is still hope. Just as Mr. Adams comments that some villages have done away with the lottery, so too can we as a nation and global community continue to strive to end violence everywhere—continue to work together to solve problems rather than finding a scapegoat to harbor the blame.

Works Cited

"Critical Reaction to ‘The Lottery.’" The Literary Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

Ed. Giroux, Christopher and Brigham Narins. “’The Lottery’”: Shirley Jackson.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 87. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995. Pp. 221-236. Print.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” Classic American Literature Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

O’Shaughnessy, Jack. “Response to ‘The Lottery.’" The NY Times. The New York Times, 28 Aug. 1988. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
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