Afternoon in Linen by Shirley Jackson

Kristen Roupenian joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “Afternoon in Linen,” by Shirley Jackson, which appeared in a 1943 issue of the New Yorker magazine. I count this story as a perfect example of the dark carnivalesque, in the same way The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is darkly carnivalesque. Unlike a picture book for young readers, in which a cat in a hat appears and everyone has fun for a while, these older characters of the dark carnivalesque subgenre have fun playing with each other in a bid for power and respect, however small the stage.

Below are my own thoughts building on notes taken from the converation between Roupenian and Treisman.

Continue reading “Afternoon in Linen by Shirley Jackson”

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Short Story Study

the lottery shirley jackson

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948) was first published in The New Yorker and remains the most controversial story The New Yorker has ever run. The magazine was bombarded with vitriol and many cancelled subscriptions. Some readers were angry because this story ruined their day.

Why? Partly it’s because “The Lottery” is a horror story which starts in bucolic fashion then tricks the reader by shocking us. Readers thought this was a nice portrait of small town Americana, until suddenly it wasn’t.

(A. M. Homes reads Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” and discusses it with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman.)

 Stephen King wouldn’t be Stephen King without Shirley Jackson and how Shirley Jackson wouldn’t be Shirley Jackson without Henry James.

Mike Flanagan

Jackson lived in the era of the original Twilight Zone TV series. The Twilight Zone seems to have used this story as a template for stories which present to the reader a seemingly normal situation then give it a twist.

Modern readers won’t be duped so easily — we are all very familiar with that storytelling trick to the point it’s hard to believe stories didn’t always work like this: It’s a beautiful clear day, a small town is working together than bam, we learn that not all is well under the surface.

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

opening sentence from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Other subscribers were angry because they felt smalltown people were being mocked by “The Lottery”. They could see the satirical angle and felt unfairly accused.

Apartheid South Africa banned the story outright. “The Lottery” remained banned in some American schools as late as the 1990s.

SETTING OF “THE LOTTERY”

In response to a discussion about conscription.

Unfortunately this story will continue to speak to new audiences. Anytime we have ritual, we have ritual propping up a certain set of ideas. Those ideas may be cruel and outdated, yet remain unquestioned, unchanged.

SEASONS AND JUXTAPOSITION

The symbolism of seasons is utilised ironically here. Normally mild weather and fine days indicate good things to come, or at the very least ‘change’, but here the nice, fine day is juxtaposed against the horrific events to come.

Notice, also, the man who conducts the lottery is called Mr Summers — an ironically symbolic name.

The lottery was conducted—as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program—by Mr. Summers

(Notice how this heinous tradition is juxtaposed in the same sentence alongside joyous events which bring the community together.)

SYMBOLISM OF THE BOX

The black ballot box symbolises tradition itself. It has fallen apart and parts of it have been replaced, but it remains a black box. Mirroring this description: The tradition of stoning someone each year to make the crops grow is as old as the box and although small parts of the tradition have been modified, the tradition itself remains.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

Shirley Jackson uses the box to open and close the story, providing readers with a sense of circularity and therefore inevitability:

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.

FEMINIST MESSAGES

This is a patriarchy of the worst variety. Men draw for the women, teenage boys are given more responsibility than their mothers as soon as they come of age. Yet women are not afforded the benefit of benevolent sexism. Women and girls have an equal opportunity to die.

The unseen narrator tells us that the men speak of important farming issues whereas the women ‘gossip’ — the word ‘gossip’ is used to dismiss women’s speech. This is a community who doesn’t listen to women. So when it is a woman (Mrs Adams) who points out (only after her husband tentatively introduces the matter) that other places have stopped the stoning tradition, she is dismissed out of hand by Old Man Warner.  The general misogyny of the community is underlined in the scene where women aren’t allowed to draw, and if their husbands are incapacitated, ideally this job goes to his young son. Mr Summers is pitied because his wife is ‘a scold’. Again, this is a heavily gendered word used to describe women who don’t agree with men. Though we don’t get to hear directly from Mr Summers’ wife, could she be in strong opposition to her husband’s continuing this tradition?

Mrs Hutchinson is almost late to the event and jokes that she couldn’t be leaving the dishes in the sink. This would be considered shameful for a woman in this milieu, but only reflecting on women. This is the detail women are expected to be caught up in, distracting them from things like wanting a say in civic life.

This outcome, suggests Jackson, is what you end up with when communities don’t afford women equal say in matters of ethics and humanity.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LOTTERY”

“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”

“Get in, get out.” This is common advice to short story writers. But this is a story in which the abrupt ending can only be shocking after quite a bit of mundane detail. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting will recognise the characters’ clinging on to traditions and focusing on the minutiae of procedure while forgetting all about the bigger picture, or perhaps as a deliberate distraction to avoid thinking about the bigger picture.

SHORTCOMING

Like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, this is a story about a community, not about a ‘main character’ or a ‘hero’. We are given names to lend verisimilitude — Jackson speaks to us as if we, too, are a part of this community and would know Bobby (by his first name) and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix.

The great shortcoming of this village is that they are small and insular and hew to outdated traditions without there being any outside influence to make them examine their lethal traditions. At one point someone points out, “Other villages have stopped doing this”, but without fully examining why, this change is dismissed out of hand.

DESIRE

The community is suffering from a bad agricultural year. They desire a good crop and will go to any lengths to achieve this.

OPPONENT

Nature is the main opponent here, but ‘nature’ is never an interesting opposition because it has no will/desire of its own. Opponents must have a human face. In this story we have:

  • The unseen character of Mrs Summers (who I’m guessing is a ‘scold’ due to her disagreeing with her husband)
  • “They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
  • “Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
  • Tessie, who says the system isn’t fair.

PLAN

Via a ballot box system, modified over many years, they will randomly select a village member to sacrifice.

The reader doesn’t know why this sacrifice takes place. Jackson herself may not have had a reason in her head — even if she did, it was wise to keep it off the page because by leaving it out, the reader can see that whatever reason the villagers have is completely irrelevant.

We’re encouraged to wonder at the reason for the lottery.

  • Someone was sacrificed to ensure a good crop across the following year. I think there is text in the story to support this reading.
  • Perhaps the villagers were really killed to satisfy a human urge for gore and murder, satisfied in this formalised way, preventing random deaths.
  • Perhaps they need to keep the population down because there would be a food shortage otherwise.
  • Perhaps it is thought that this ritual keeps the town orderly in general. I’ve heard similar arguments in favour of school uniforms. One reason for compulsory school uniforms: By imposing restriction for restriction’s sake, this keeps the student body more calm.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene of this story is the argument that takes place between the chosen and those who chose her.

This big struggle is so chilling because there’s so little to it. Notice the word choice:

  • Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand.
  • “Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called. (As if this is a sport and not a murder.)
  • “It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said. (She didn’t shout or scream.)
  • “How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.

There is no real screaming until the final sentence, which is where a story draws most of its power:

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.

ANAGNORISIS

The villagers have no revelation and this is its tragedy. The reader, however, should have had some sort of revelation.

  • Clinging on to old traditions can be cruel, no matter how ‘fair’ it looks.
  • The thing about the feminist messages: You have to be feminist to see them. The narrator offers no judgement. We see how the women are treated and form our own conclusions. A non-feminist reader wouldn’t necessarily conclude that misogyny had a single part to play in the lethal tradition of this community.

NEW SITUATION

When Old Man Warner tells us he’s been in this lottery 77 times, this prepares the reader to know, for certain, that this same tradition will carry on next year, too. Likewise, we are prepared to extrapolate this information when the two women in the back mutter to each other that the lotteries seem closer and closer together these days.

RELATED READING

Shirley Jackson died aged 48 in 1965. Although she died young her output has had a huge influence on big hitting modern authors such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.

“The Lottery” is a cultural influence on more modern works such as “Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan (an Australian writer; universal setting short story). If you’ve read The Hunger Games you’ll be put in mind of that.

As for story structure, “The Last Spin” by Evan Hunter (1960) is very similar. Most of the narrative details the rules of a game, and ends shockingly and suddenly.

11 Facts About Shirley Jackson’s Lottery from Mental Floss.

Shirley Jackson Predicted America’s Fascination With The Murderess from Electric Literature

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Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home

Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives Cover

Louisa, Please Come Home” is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in Ladies Home Journal, 1960. Shirley Jackson’s Louisa Please Come Home can also be found in the collection “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives”, along with other short stories similar in tone.

Shirley Jackson is best known for “The Lottery“, which is still her best known short story, though not her most sophisticated.

This short story appeals to me partly because I’m interested in the idea that perhaps there is no ‘true self’ — that we learn to fill the roles imposed upon us. I explore this same idea in our young adult short story app, Hilda Bewildered. (Now available on Steam.)

WHAT HAPPENS IN “LOUISA, PLEASE COME HOME?”

19-year-old Louisa Tether runs away from her family the day before her sister’s wedding. She doesn’t go far. But her family never find her. Every year, her mother pleads on the radio for her daughter to return home.

Eventually she is spotted by a man who used to know her. Louisa returns home after all.

But the mother’s response is entirely unexpected, making for a twist ending of sorts: Louisa’s mother doesn’t believe that Louisa is really her daughter, and the real Louisa is turned away.

STORYWORLD OF “LOUISA, PLEASE COME HOME”

Realistically, how much more difficult would it be to run away in 2015? A 19-year-old would carry a mobile phone, and would most likely be in frequent hourly contact with either friends or family. If you were to run away, how long would it take before you were missed? And how far would you have to go before you escaped the view of security cameras? How do you set up a new life without your security numbers, and what do you do when you get sick? Perhaps the modern analogue of Louisa is an undocumented immigrant, though we are shown nothing of Louisa’s difficulties in that area. She is yet to fall ill.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOUISA, PLEASE COME HOME”

SHORTCOMING

Louisa’s psychological need is to put some space between herself and her family. Her moral need, after three years and a preceding character arc, is to reconnect with her family, though only after provoked.

For most readers, I suspect 19-year-old Louisa Tether is not a particularly easy character with whom to identify. Few of us can imagine leaving our friends, family, everyone we know, and starting a new life elsewhere without emotional consequence. To add insult to injury, Louisa takes off the day before her sister’s wedding.

Interestingly, Jackson tells us how Louisa ran away from her family, but we must extrapolate the why. Sometimes, what’s left off the page is more intriguing than if it had been explained. The fact is, we needn’t know why she left. Theme is king, and is conveyed sufficiently in this story with the reader knowing the actual events rather than the full psychology behind it. If Jackson were to tell us why she ran away, Louisa would need to be an emotionally aware storyteller who can understand herself sufficiently to even know, and then to put it into words. It’s almost as if Louisa only goes through the motions in life, doing things because other people do them.

At first glance, Shirley Jackson seems to have successfully skirted around well-known writing advice to ‘always show why your hero acts as he does.’ But did she really break this ‘rule’?

We are in fact offered a few clues as to why she ran away. Louisa feels invisible next to the hoopla of wedding-business that surrounds her melodramatic sister. Perhaps the sister has always been the show pony, with Louisa simply fading into the wallpaper. Louisa also feels that her sister hates her. She may be lacking in self-esteem to the point where she genuinely feels she would not be missed if she were not there. To compensate for not knowing why Louisa ran away (the macro question), we are told in minute detail why Louisa makes the decisions around the execution of running away. We’re told why she got rid of her coat in the way she did, and why she bought a return ticket and so on. All of this detail creates a need in the reader to ask, ‘YES, BUT WHY DID YOU RUN AWAY?!’

DESIRE

“She would never have wanted to spoil my wedding,” Carol said. But she knew that was exactly what I’d wanted.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

OPPONENT

Since Louisa wants to run away from home, annoy her sister and remain anonymous, the opponent is the character who stands in the way of that.

In this case, it is Paul, introduced early to provide cohesion. (It’s not a good idea to introduce characters late in a short story. If a character is needed towards the end, introduce them early, somehow.)

There was only one bad minute. Paul saw me. Paul always lived next door to us. Carol hates him more than she hates me. My mother can’t stand him, either.

Of course, he didn’t know I was running away. I told him what I had told my parents. I was going downtown to get away from all the noise. He wanted to come with me. But I ran for the bus and left him standing there.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

PLAN

I bought a round-trip ticket; that was important, because it would make them think I was coming back; that was always the way they thought about things. If you did something you had to have a reason for it, because my mother and my father and Carol never did anything unless they had a reason for it, so if I bought a round-trip ticket the only possible reason would be that I was coming back.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

Normally, you’d think someone’d have more trouble running away and staying unfound. Shirley Jackson subverts that expectation; it’s remarkably easy for Louisa to do just that:

Anyway, Carol’s wedding may have been fouled up, but my plans went fine—better, as a matter of fact, than I had ever expected.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene happens with Louisa bumps into Paul.

ANAGNORISIS

NEW SITUATION

Mrs Peacock

If Louisa Tether has an ironically symbolic name, we might look for reasons why Mrs Peacock has been named after a bird with spectacular plumage. (Or, at least, the male version of the bird.)

What we know about Mrs Peacock:

  • She can be quick to take offence
  • She is fanciful
  • ‘Proper living’ lady who believes in filial piety
  • She and Louisa hit it off right away, according to Louisa

In history, myth, legend and lore, the Peacock symbolises: Nobility, Holiness, Guidance, Protection and Watchfulness. If this is the case here, Mrs Peacock, too, has an ironic last name. But when I think of peacocks, I think of a lot of posing, making a big show without there being much substance. This is what Mrs Peacock does with the wholly imagined story of Missing, Murdered Louisa.

THEMES

THE ROSE-TINTED GLASSES OF LOVE

We idealize the people we love. Sometimes the person we want to see is nothing like the person who actually stands before us.

I’m first reminded of a voice excerpt on the Paris Wells album Various Small Fires. A man says

My heart and brain concur.
I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.

(You’ll find it at the end of “No Hard Feelings”.) In issue #383 of The Brag, Paris Wells explains this is poetry by a guy they met in a Jazz club in New York — “this old lovely Jewish guy in a wheelchair.” His name is Marvin Wildstein and she just had to put him in the album. (Here’s another of his poems.) Marvin died of pneumonia early April 2015.

Is it possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t exist? Atheists would say yes. Perhaps we are all in love with someone who doesn’t exist, insofar as it’s never possible to know another completely.

I tried to imagine my own mother; I looked straight at her.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

We come across hundreds of people each week but we know very few of them at all, most of them remaining completely unmemorable. Sometimes, the only way we can be the centre of attention/achieve fame is by doing something terrible.

‘It’s funny  how no one pays any attention to you at all. There were hundreds of people who saw me that day, and even a sailor who tried to pick me up in the movie, and yet no one really saw me.’

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

People seem to prefer elaborate stories of kidnapping and gore over simple realities such as ‘She just ran off’. The former is almost easier for them to understand.

People never seriously believed that anyone would go to Chandler from choice.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

COGNITIVE BIAS

We explain away the world so we can get through it. With Mrs Peacock as with all of us, our perceptions shape our expectations. When Louisa says, ‘But she kind of looks like me” Mrs Peacock makes up excuses as to why she couldn’t possibly be living with the runaway.

We are strangely slow to believe some stories but quick to believe others. Mrs Peacock does not see Louisa right there in front of her, but concocts an elaborate conspiracy theory, some of which she shares with Louisa:

“But the papers say there wasn’t any ransom note.”

“That’s what they say.”

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

This aspect of the theme reminds me of the way in which the Internet has brought conspiracy theorists together, and the way some ridiculous stories end up more believable than the more mundane realities.

INVISIBILITY

There must be thousands of 19-year-old girls, fair-haired, five feet four inches tall, weighing 126 pounds. And a lot of them would be wearing raincoats.

It’s funny how no one pays any attention to you. Hundreds of people saw me that day. But no one really saw me.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

Compare and contrast the character of Louisa with, say, Raoul Duquette of Katherine Mansfield’s “Je ne parle pas francais“. Both of these characters have extraordinary imaginative powers, able to completely reconstruct the realities of their own lives, leaving the past behind them, immune to regret.

But unlike Duquette, Louisa achieves this rebirth by remaining invisible. She doesn’t want to be seen. She doesn’t see herself as a character in a play, constantly on-stage, performing in front of an imaginary audience.

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

LINKING BEGINNING TOThe Ending

This is a story that rewards a re-reading. Shirley Jackson almost nudges us towards a second reading by starting and ending with the same lines.

The unexpected resonse at the end changes the whole focus, precisely because most stories about reunited people end with tears of joy. This is a subversion of the mythic reunion plot, in which a hero leaves home to fight some big struggle, overcomes many hurdles then returns home a changed person.

Coat as Symbol of Persona

When Louisa ditches the light coat given to her by her mother, she feels she has cast her old life completely aside. Louisa takes off her personality/identity just as easily as taking off a coat. This is the author asking us to consider that maybe ‘identity’ isn’t all that integral to ‘self’.

Storyteller/Narrator As Character

When writing a story, how do you decide on which point of view to write from?

Using the language of narratology, a storyteller narrator is a homodiegetic (within-story) narrator — they are a character in the story as well as the teller of it.

FURTHER READING

  • The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm also explores the difference between a real person and an idealised version of that same person, through the rose-tinted glasses of a lover.
  • For the same reason, check out “Something Childish But Very Natural” by Katherine Mansfield, about the limerance of new lovers. Of course, “Louisa, Please Come Home” is about familial love, not erotic love. But the skewed perspective is the same.
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