American Gothic: Shirley Jackson


Gothic literature has been prevalent since the eighteen-century and stands among some of the most important literary genres, but it has also seen significant change since its beginnings. This article will explain the evolution of Gothic literature into what is known as ‘Contemporary Gothic’. For a better understanding of this literary genre, this article will also focus on the figure of Shirley Jackson and her short story The Lottery. Shirley Jackson was an American author born in San Francisco in 1916. Throughout her life, Jackson published mostly short stories revolving around horror and mystery — she wrote more than 200 — but she also wrote six novels and two memoirs. The story that gave her initial recognition was one of her first: The Lottery which was published in The New Yorker in 1948. Through its analysis of The Lottery, this article intends to give a better perspective on the genre itself and acknowledges Jackson and her storytelling technique.

Figure 1: Shirley Jackson in 1940.

Before explaining what makes up the contemporary Gothic genre in literature, it is important to learn about its origins. This literary movement is characterized by the feeling of fear that it creates in the reader, or similar reactions such as discomfort. These negative perceptions are pursued by the public as the idea of fear does not have to go necessarily with anxiety, but also can be interpreted as moments of imaginative liberation. Readers look for the adrenaline caused by fear and anticipation. In this literary genre, the ideas of good and bad are usually confused, as conventional ideas are broken and questioned; in other words, the Gothic is a genre of opposition and offers an opportunity for writers to talk about controversial topics. It can tell the story of those who are rejected, oppressed or who have failed (Crow, 2012, p.47). This style has also always played with chronology, as it usually looks back to moments of imaginary history, longing for a society that never existed, and grieving virtues that belonged more in fairy tales than in real life (Bruhm, 2002, p.259). In this sense, contemporary Gothic literature continues on the path which traditional Gothic literature established. In the same sense, traditional and contemporary Gothic interests are not that different either, as both of them focus on themes such as family dynamics, limits of rationality and passion, and the cultural effects of technology (Bruhm, 2002, p.259). Contemporary Gothic is an essential genre of modern times as it helps question the concept of society itself, explores answers to questions about life, and highlights the importance of perserverance: we are torn between craving life and giving in to destruction, and in this conflict, we are constantly in need of the Gothic to give form to our contradiction (Bruhm, 2002, p.274).

Figure 2: Scene of the graphic novel 'The Lottery' by Miles Hyam.

As for The Lottery, the story narrates the tale of a fictitious rural town that practises "the lottery" — a yearly event in which a community member is elected at random. The reader is introduced to the residents of the town and the village itself in extreme detail right as the ‘lottery’ is about to begin. The text goes into further detail on the history of the town and greatly stresses how the lottery is the most important event of the year which every member of the village must attend. At first glance, the lottery does not seem to have anything unusual to it. However, at the end of the text, a villager named Mrs Hutchinson expresses her discomfort — and fear — about her family being selected in the lottery. In the last paragraphs, the truth is revealed: the reason for this annual ceremony is to choose a resident of the town — no matter their age — to be stoned to death.


Figure 3: Scene of the 1996 movie adaptation.

In this text, Jackson focuses on the tradition of conventional small towns in the United States, and on how sometimes they refuse to abandon their habits no matter how wicked they may be. In this way, Jackson presents the plights behind historical traumas, persecution, and claustrophobically small communities (Spooner, 2015, p. 617). In the middle of The lottery's narration, Jackson also reveals that some other towns had stopped performing this ceremony, but this idea is presented with disagreement, as the oldest man in town — old Man Warner — states that "There’s always been a lottery" (Shirley, 1948, p.4), showing that the residents of this town do not think that their traditions should be changed. Still, Jackson gives hope to the tale, as she presents the possibility of a change in the community.


Jackson's representation of the old traditions and the people's respect for the town's origins is what creates a Gothic atmosphere in the text: everyone participates in the lottery every year without questioning its moral point. They treat it as a habit and consequently do not see any obvious need for change. Therefore, one may argue that what keeps the lottery in the village ongoing is not only the importance of the tradition but also the myth and ideology. If the ‘sacrifice’ is made to be seen as a way to have a good summer — as the lottery occurs on the 27 of June —, the killing of a resident of the town represents a good situation for the rest of the inhabitants. Analysing Jackson’s text as a critique of society at the time, it could be better said that The Lottery represents how time can degrade the original intentions behind myths (Hattenhauer, 2012, p.45); this form of extreme cruelty lacks importance in modern times as societies tend to evolve and realise that this kind of ‘sacrifice’ is not what sustains them.


The Lottery offers an insight of the evil inside people from a perspective of personal madness and cultural brutality, which are not only central to the theme of the text but also elements related to Gothic literature (Lootens, 2015, p. 743). Shirley Jackson is able to condensate these elements into a short text while also being able to keep the attention of the reader and create a feeling of unease and anxiety throughout the clear and extensive descriptions of the story. Jackson was inspired by the American towns, and she captured their identity and their dark sides to portray them in the most atrocious way. Contemporary Gothic literature is founded on the idea of looking into the past and questioning the relevance of the present and the possibilities of the future; that is what Jackson does with this text. She bases the story on ideas about the past, but at the same time, presents the possibility of change. This way, Jackson presents a piece of Gothic literature and builds realities that, although raw and harsh, can resonate with the reader by showing them the limits humankind can reach.


Bibliography:

Bruhm, S. (2002). The contemporary Gothic: Why we need it. In J. E. Hogle (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge Companions to Literature) (pp. 259–277). Cambridge University Press.


Crow, C. L. (2012). American Gothic: An Anthology from Salem witchcraft to H. P. Lovecraft (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.


Hattenhauer, D. (2012). Shirley Jackson's American Gothic. SUNY Press.


Jackson, S. (1948, June 19). “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/06/26/the-lottery


Lootens, T. (2015). Jackson, Shirley. In D. Punter, W. Hughes, & A. Smith (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of the Gothic (Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature) (1st ed., pp. 740–746). Wiley-Blackwell.


Spooner, C. (2015). Gothic 1950 to the Present. In D. Punter, W. Hughes, & A. Smith (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of the Gothic (Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature) (1st ed., pp. 614–630). Wiley-Blackwell.



Visual references

Cover: [Shirley Jackson]. (1956). ElPeriodico. https://www.elperiodico.com/es/ocio-y-cultura/20181204/shirley-jackson-el-horror-de-la-vida-domestica-7184831


Figure 1: Miller, Laura (11 July 2021). "The Alternating Identities of Shirley Jackson". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 August 2022.


Figure 2: Hyman, M. (2016). [Scene of the election in the Lottery]. In Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. A Graphic Adaptation: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation.


Figure 3: [The Lottery]. (1996). IMBd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116924/


Author Photo

Maialen De Carlos

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