And Then They Were Upon Her

June 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

At The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Ruth Franklin writes about the letters the magazine received after publishing Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in 1948, “the most mail the magazine had ever received in response to a work of fiction”:

There were indeed some cancelled subscriptions, as well as a fair share of name-calling—Jackson was said to be ‘perverted’ and ‘gratuitously disagreeable,’ with ‘incredibly bad taste.’ But the vast majority of the letter writers were not angry or abusive but simply confused. More than anything else, they wanted to understand what the story meant.

There were some outlandish theories. Marion Trout, of Lakewood, Ohio, suspected that the editorial staff had become “tools of Stalin.” Another reader wondered if it was a publicity stunt, while several more speculated that a concluding paragraph must have been accidentally cut by the printer. Others complained that the story had traumatized them so much that they had been unable to open any issues of the magazine since. “I read it while soaking in the tub … and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all,” wrote Camilla Ballou, of St. Paul.

I know I read “The Lottery” in school, perhaps even junior high. In my memory it was my first definite instance of identifying the foreshadowing of an event before the event took place. The fishiness feels obvious in retrospect:

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”–eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys, and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.

The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.

Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

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