This series is adapted from a chapter in Keith Loftin’s Rekindling an Old Light: The Virtue and Value of Christ-Shaped Liberal Arts Learning (High Bridge Books, 2022, published in conjunction with Moral Apologetics Press).
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” begins harmlessly enough—with townspeople from a rural community gathering in the picturesque public square on an idyllic June day.1 Schoolboys in their newfound summer freedom collect rocks, neighbors chat while waiting for some sort of ceremony to begin, and town officials make their final preparations for the event. But this account of small-town camaraderie takes a dark turn, as first the Hutchinson family is singled out after drawing the fateful paper marked with an ominous black dot. Eventually, Tessie, the Hutchinson mother, finds herself holding the dreaded slip. Her earlier joking mood shifts to loud protests, challenging the contest’s outcome: “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!” And as Tessie pleads for her daughter and son-in-law’s inclusion in the second round of drawing paper slips from the dilapidated box, it dawns on the reader that this is not a lottery one wants to win, a realization confirmed once the rocks start flying.
When The New Yorker first published “The Lottery” in 1948, the reader reaction was overwhelming. People wrote demanding to know what it meant. Many were frustrated and outraged by the events depicted and appalled that the magazine would dare run such a piece. Miriam Friend’s response captured the general bewilderment: without “a brief explanation” of the tale, she said, she and her husband would “scratch right through [their] scalps trying to fathom it.”2 And Carolyn Green wondered at the “shock and horror” Jackson’s story provoked, yet even still she had the sense that there might be something of genius about it.3 All told the magazine received over three hundred letters in response, well beyond anything they’d ever published.4
Anyone who has read Jackson’s story can understand the commotion its publication raised. Jackson sets readers up to expect one outcome and delivers quite the opposite. The plot appears quite benign but is in fact alarming. A re-read, however, reveals Jackson’s skillful crafting of the story with the clear intention to unsettle readers. Through her careful arrangement, she highlights how the town’s surrender to the status quo, to groupthink, and to blind tradition leads them to such inhumanity and, importantly, that those same tendencies may (and probably do) also lurk in the reader’s heart. The story’s content, in other words, cannot be disentangled from its form, at least not without the loss of something valuable.
What Literature Does
This is exactly the kind of thing any well-made story does. By involving the imagination, it gestures beyond the literal confines of the events described and captures the reader’s heart as well as her mind. The same holds for a well-made poem. Perrine’s Literature, a popular anthology, explains that poetry invites us to participate imaginatively in experience, by broadening it or deepening it. What the editors say of poetry is true of any solid literary work: it’s a multi-dimensional form of language, appealing to the intellectual, sensual, emotional, and imaginative faculties of readers.5
A quick example nicely illustrates this operation. Wanting to learn about the eagle, you might review the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the creature. There you’ll learn that eagles are “large, heavy-beaked, big-footed birds of prey,” that they belong to the Accipitridae family and are kin to falcons, buzzards, and other winged predators. The article is chock-full of facts, explaining that the eagle resembles a vulture in body composition and its flight patterns but differs by having a fully feathered head and “strong feet equipped with great curved talons.” We learn, too, about the animal’s foraging habits, its preference for live prey, and its reliance on strength and surprise over agility to dominate its quarry.6
It’s not exactly a page-turner, nor was it meant to be. While a reference article can tell you about the eagle, literature can show you. It can invite you to experience the facts the encyclopedia lays out, to give them a full-bodied expression. Consider “The Eagle” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.7
Through imagery, rhyme, and figurative speech, Tennyson brings the eagle to poetic life in the reader’s mind. The difference between the reference article and Tennyson’s poem exemplifies the different types of knowledge that C. S. Lewis discusses in “Meditation in a Toolshed.”8 Standing in a dark toolshed, Lewis noticed a sunbeam coming through a crack in the door. All around the beam was darkness, and in the beam he saw specks of dust floating. As he took a small step into the light, however, a whole new scene came into view. He could see the outside world with its leaves and trees and sun, obscured before from his perspective.
Lewis uses this experience as an allegory for “looking at” a phenomenon versus “looking along” it. The ecstatic, resplendent, consuming experience of love, for example, is a far cry from a biologist’s factual explanation of its chemical processes. A Shakespearean sonnet is much closer to the former than the latter. In this way, excellent literature offers insights into the human condition unavailable from the sciences, or even philosophy, and it does so in memorably engaging ways that are themselves quite valuable. Literature both teaches and delights, as the Roman poet Horace famously put it.9 Its inherent value has been recognized by thinkers through the ages, including by church fathers, many of whom found resonances between even great pagan literature, such as that of Homer and Hesiod, Aeschylus and Sophocles, and fundamental truths of scripture. This might strike us as contradictory. If literature delivers knowledge, wouldn’t Christians find value only in the writings of those who embrace the truth of the gospel? We will consider this challenge in the next installment.
- Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 7th ed., eds. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004), 245-250.
- Ruth Franklin, “‘The Lottery’ Letters,” The New Yorker, June 25, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters./
- Greg Johnson and Thomas R. Arp, Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound & Sense, 13th ed. (Boston: Cengage, 2018), 708.
- Britannica Academic, s.v. “Eagle,” accessed March 12, 2019, https://academic-eb-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/levels/collegiate/article/eagle/31700.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Eagle,” in Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound & Sense, 708.
- C. S. Lewis, “Meditations in a Toolshed,” God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 212-215.
- Horace, The Art of Poetry, in The Critical Tradition, shorter 3rd ed., ed. David Richter (New York: St. Martin’s, 2016), 75-85.
I appreciate the distinction between the factual and affective descriptions of the eagle. My “go-to” passages for making the same point are Charles Dickens’s description of Mr. Gradgrind’s classroom in the second chapter of Hard Times and a scene from C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In Dickens, Mr. Gradgrind asks what a horese is; he scorns Sissy Jupe, who has grown up around horses, and instead approves of the following “dictionary” answer: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive,” and so on. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace is introduced to the star Ramandu, he struggles to process the information. “‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘as star is a huge ball of flaming gas.'” Ramandu answers, “‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.'”
Thanks for your post!
Thank you, William! I hadn’t remembered the Lewis example. It’s a great one! Thanks for calling my attention to it!