Revisiting The Lottery by Shirley Jackson to uncover more insight on the function of "evil" in humanity.
The modern fantasy and science fiction story can be considered to have begun in the mid-nineteenth century when writers began to attempt the creation of
secondary worlds. Jules Verne, for example, wrote about traveling to the moon
and beneath the sea in his Voyages Extraordinaires. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
published just a few decades earlier was an exploration of the human mind
questioning the concept of creation.
These early examples of dark fantasy helped to define the genres, but it wasn't until the twentieth century that fantasy and science fiction would come into their own.
Conventions are the rules of the universe in which the story takes place. They
define how magic works or time travel functions in that world because it is
different from the reader's reality. Themes in dark fantasy explore the ideas about humanity presented through the story. Conventions common in dark fantasy stories include magic (or other elements beyond our reality), monsters (beasts or humans), and worlds separate from this earth.
The standard conventions have evolved over the centuries into what we see and experience in today's dark fantasy stories. Authors such as Lovecraft and Tolkien were considered early pioneers of the genre, but modern popular authors such as George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker have all contributed their own bit of work to what has become a prominent literary movement.
Diving into the dark
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a good example of dark fantasy. From a young
age, Gothic novelist and author Ann Radcliffe was influenced by the works of
Thomas De Quincey. At Bennington College, she taught English literature and is
credited for demonstrating suspense in horror. The Lottery is one of Jackson's
most renowned works, having been adapted to stage and screen.
An element of dark fantasy that is important is making the world relatable to
society. It is a parallel universe that discusses social issues in a way that relates
to individual reality. The Lottery is about conformity and the "mob mentality". The townspeople act in a way that mostly benefits themselves, even if it means
hurting others. The setting of the short story by Jackson contains the needed
elements of dark fantasy like being brutal.
The townspeople hold a festival every year and the winner is killed. Not only is the winner forced to be stoned, but their family will participate in the killings. Jackson shows the young children of Tessie Hutchison picking up stones and joining in the mob killing. Society shapes an idealistic view of children's innocence and in this small town no child, teen or adult is innocent.
The entire town is guilty of murder every time they hold the lottery. This is a pessimistic outlook on humanity from the dark fantasy perspective. It has changed into more of an omen or warning about society. These are some of the many vital elements that have remained the same throughout history in dark fantasy because the word "dark" denotes something bad, harmful, graphic, and violent.
The importance of symbolism
The very early texts of dark fantasy were more like omen or warnings about
human society while today's fiction has matured into more complex characters,
plots that often include more than just one problem for the protagonist to solve,
intricate layers of issues are presented in modern literature.
For instance, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling starts out light-hearted and fun with a young boy that loves magic but as it progresses, many issues are brought to light such as prejudice against muggleborns (wizards born from nonmagical parents), the rise of Voldemort begins to show his true power, and relationships become strained the characters. Harry Potter is filled with death and dark subtext similar to The Lottery, but more explicit.
A black box is used during the ceremony and inside is an envelope that holds the
name of each resident. The Lottery's dark element is the black box, which
represents darkness, death, and evil but also conveys the town's actual
nature. The black box represents the darkness in the town, as well as its refusal to
give up outdated traditions and progress. The town is trapped in a figurative dark age. The characters have a unique relationship with the box as some have never had their name called and others have lost family members to the ritual.
Mr. Summers is a forward-thinking individual who was in charge of replacing the black box. This character is emblematic of the urge to break away from their
forefathers' traditions and stop this savage act. Others in the village may have
concerns, but they nevertheless blindly follow ritualistic rules. (Shields, 413). On
the other hand, the old Man Warner is the oldest inhabitant of the settlement and feels that changing would lead to its ruin. The superstitious belief that one
member of the town must die in order for the rest to survive highlights the dark
fantasy in this world created by Jackson.
The true monsters walk among us
The story progresses and it becomes more clear that this world is disturbingly
archaic, violent, and cruel. When Tessie's name is pulled out of the box, she
begins to cry hysterically even though her fate is sealed. Tessie begs and no one
listens. It represents how the mob mentality can lead seemingly normal people to watch terrible events unfold and choose not to intervene.
Dark fantasy is a tool that writers use to explore the darkest and deplorable
elements of humankind. The Lottery, according to Professor Patrick J. Shields,
“illustrates graphically the 'pointless violence' in people's lives, as well as the
general inhumanity of man.”(412).
The violence is representative of the time period in which Jackson lived. Jackson
was born during the early 1900s and died in the 1960s. This was a time of particular influence and the fight for female equality. In the short story, the men
of the town run the political arrangements for the people. “The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now..had
been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born” (Jackson para. 4). The men established a hold on the town and made the discussion for women and children alike. The violence is representative of the metaphorical oppression of women in the time period in which Jackson lived.
Dark fantasy is the fantastical imaginings of nightmares. The stories are set in a different universe where the supernatural is commonplace, science has evolved
beyond earth's current understanding, and magic dually exists. The people are
different then what you know, but there are always similarities to be found.
There is always evil, not necessarily in the form of a devil or monster, but it could be the man next door. The Lottery and many other stories of dark fantasy open the mind to new possibilities and allow the audience to explore unhindered and walk into the darkness.
Biography. “Shirley Jackson.” Biography, 7 Apr. 2021,
Bonikowski, Wyatt. "'Only one antagonist': the demon lover and the feminine experience in the work of Shirley Jackson." Gothic Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, p. 66+
Fuyu Chen. “A Representative and a Scapegoat: Analysis of Tessie Hutchinson in The Lottery.” Theory & Practice in Language Studies, vol. 2, no. 5, May 2012, pp. 1022–1026. doi:10.4304/tpls.2.5.1022-1026.
Hattenhauer, Darryl. “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 71, no. 1, Mar. 2017, p. 64.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. 1948. http://sites.middlebury.edu/individualandthesociety/files/2019/09/jackson_lottery.pdf
Shields, Patrick J. “Arbitrary Condemnation and Sanctioned Violence in Shirley Jackson’s ‘the Lottery.’” Contemporary Justice Review, vol. 7, no. 4, Dec. 2004, pp. 411–419. doi:10.1080/1028258042000305884.
Whittier, Gayle. “‘The Lottery’ as Misogynist Parable.” Women’s Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, Jan. 1991, p. 353. doi:10.1080/00497878.1991.9978842.
Originally written for our LIT 410 class 2021.