Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” first appeared in The New Yorker in June 1948. Jackson received a tidal wave of hate mail that summer for her strange and dark story, and The New Yorker saw many canceled subscriptions. In the 68 years since the summer of 1948, however, “The Lottery” has gone on to become one of the most acclaimed of American short stories. Most people know what it’s about, even if they haven’t read it, and its influence has been powerful: just think of the opening of Suzanne Collins’s enormously successful novel, The Hunger Games (2008).
Readers were baffled by Jackson’s story. It dramatizes the yearly ritual of a town (although there are other towns that do it, too) in which everyone gathers in the town center, draws a piece of paper out of a box, and then stones to death the unlucky person who pulls out the single black mark. The story’s obliqueness lies in its refusal to explain why — why the lottery began and why it persists, even while, as one character points out, “Some places have already quit lotteries.”
Despite the failure of the story to explain itself, it seems clear that, among other things, the story is criticizing blind tradition. “There’s always been a lottery,” one character says, in what he seems to think is a self-evident rationalization of the ritual’s persistence. The story is also about the seemingly intractable human propensity for violence, which often needs only the flimsiest of excuses and can be as blind as rituals repeated year after year.
Nonetheless, a month after her story’s publication, Jackson’s readers were still apparently so confused that she felt compelled to speak to its meaning herself, although she prefaced her comments in the San Francisco Chronicle in July 1948 by expressing the “difficulty” of explaining what she had hoped to convey. “I suppose,” she wrote, “I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
The Hunger Games catalyzed the ritual violence of “The Lottery” into a kind of terroristic entertainment, the Capital using the lottery and the subsequent games to keep the population both cowed and distracted. One can also see how The Purge franchise (2013 -2016) takes up another meaning of “The Lottery”. Give the people a safety-valve for their violence one day per year and it’s kept in check the other 364 days of the year.
“The Lottery”, in short, is one of those stories that is “timeless” in the sense that it can be re-invented from generation to generation: the violent confrontation at its center is one that humans will never escape, and to which they will continually adduce new meaning.
It’s not surprising then, that we now have a new version of “The Lottery”, a graphic adaptation created by Jackson’s grandson, Miles Hyman. It’s a beautiful book with realistic drawings that visually conjure up small-town America. Hyman’s version is faithful to Jackson’s story, though he restructures the narrative (especially at the beginning) and includes some small additions.
Jackson’s story begins on the morning of 27 June, for example, but Hyman’s book begins the night before, showing us the men — Harry and Joe — preparing the box and its papers. Aside from a greeting, they do so wordlessly, heightening the sense of the lottery as an unthinking, rote ritual. There’s also a visual evocation of past rituals, complete with a “perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year”, dim memories of where people used to stand, and a ritual salute; these are mentioned in Jackson’s story but brought to life in Hyman’s adaptation.
Hyman also presents conversation among the townspeople about the lottery — how it used to be and how it is now, and these additions, which dramatize what Jackson only tells in a few sentences of indirect narration, serve to damn the townspeople even more thoroughly. The action of Jackson’s story is located entirely in a present that seems eternal — things have always been this way. Hyman’s adaptation, however, directly dramatizes both the past and conversation about the past, showing more clearly than in Jackson’s story how the townspeople are aware of change by how they talk of change. It thus gives them a greater power to do away with the lottery if they so choose, and thus condemns them all the more when they do not.
Once the lottery begins, Hyman’s adaptation is entirely faithful to Jackson’s story — until the very end. Jackson ends her story, after Tessie Hutchinson draws the black mark, with the powerful line “and then they were upon her”. Hyman shows this moment in chilling detail, but then his last five panels, taking up four pages, reveal the restoration of order in the town: things go on as they once had. Perhaps this ending, implicit in Jackson’s but rendered explicitly in Hyman’s story, is even more chilling.
Hyman makes the interesting choice of orange as the predominant color of his book: the buildings are orange, many of the townspeople’s clothes are orange, their flesh is suffused with orange. In fact, the orange ambience of the book fooled me into thinking that the events of the story were set in the late summer and early fall even though Hyman, like Jackson, makes it clear that the lottery is held on 27 June. One almost wishes, however, that the story had been set in the fall, at harvest time — reaping time — because the day of the lottery is the day that the townspeople indeed reap what they have sown, when the sacrificial death is exacted upon which their community is founded. The gathering of crops, the cycles of human agriculture, usually accompany other kinds of killing (such as livestock), as well.
Further, as I was writing this review, I happened to read a passage from Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles in which the new reaping machine begins its work, inexorably moving around the field, reducing it to stubble and driving the “rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, [and] mice” inward; they are unaware, as Hardy points out, “of the ephemeral nature of their refuge.” Finally, the reaping machine gets to the center, to the “last few yards of upright wheat”, and then the huddled animals are “every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters.” The ritual stoning of a huddled animal life is an integral part of human domestication of the land, Hardy suggests, and it’s a way that Hyman’s adaptation of “The Lottery” is substantively different from Jackson’s story, which does not so clearly evoke the cycles of nature and agriculture, along with their costs.
The orange suffusion of Hyman’s graphic novel, though, makes the reader feel that it’s harvest time: he includes a full two-page panel of the growing corn early in the novel; and the title page features a dried orange and yellow sheaf of grain, after the reaping — and then there’s the use of orange throughout. Hyman thus implicitly connects the stoning ritual and the reaping of grain; illuminating, perhaps, the interconnection of life and death in both. In the end, both in the way that he stays faithful to Jackson’s story, and also in the subtle interweaving of new meanings, Hyman’s graphic adaptation is an exceptional work of art.