Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Big Read IV: Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, finished

The Lottery: And Other StoriesLeila got sick around the time it seemed everybody was getting sick, and dropped The Big Read IV on The Lottery back in November. A couple of readers still finished. You can read Patti's posts here. When I realized Leila stopped so did I, but I took the opportunity of a day off due to snow to finish my reading before I start Moby Dick.

Pillar of Salt

A husband and wife have the unusual treat of a two week vacation in New York. I find myself wondering if leaving their home is the leaving of Sodom and Gomorrah, or if it is the leaving of New York that turns her into a pillar of salt, or just what is the leave-taking and looking back? Perhaps it is encased in the very first sentence.

For some reason a tune was running through her head when she and her husband got on the train in New Hampshire for their trip to New York;...the tune...was from the days when she was fifteen or sixteen, and had never seen New York except in movies, when the city was made up, to her, of penthouses filled with Noel Coward people; when the height and speed and luxury and gaiety that made up a city like New York were confused inextricably with the dullness of being fifteen, and beauty unreachable and far in the movies.
The thought that the whole story could be contained in this first long sentence makes me think more about the pillar of salt myth. Just what does it mean that Lot's wife turned to salt? What did she see? What was it about her that makes her turn around? Ummm, I don't think I'll use this for answers. Nor will this bit of geological history give me clues. (Funny that one of the experts is named Mr. Harris...see previous stories about that.) Exploring these questions could flush out the layers in this story. It is definitely one I felt I could read again to find the possible moment in which she turned.

You really begin to notice the wife is doomed when she's the only one who hears people on the street warning of a fire, and no one at the party, perhaps filled with now sinister Noel Coward people, listens to her. She goes to the street, in her panic leaving her husband behind, and it turns out the fire is two buildings away. After that she sees everything disintegrating. Buildings crumble like sand.

Thus begins the more sinister stories, or so I thought after picking the book up after a long break. In the previous stories I looked for the environment as a metaphor of the protagonist. In this one, the protagonist sees the environment around her as what is going on in her broken mind, and she is apparently the only one who sees it that way. Scary story, and it's all in her mind.

Men With Their Big Shoes

Mrs. Hart hired Mrs. Anderson and praised the housekeeper to her New York friends before she knew just what a passive-aggressive scary person she was. She seems to be pressured into letting Mrs. Anderson move in, as Mrs. Anderson's husband is made out to be a dangerous loud drunk. Mrs. Anderson also hints that Mrs. Martin, apparently the store gossip, knows that Mrs. Hart's husband is stepping out on her. So which is Mrs. Anderson to be feared, or is she simply opening Mrs. Hart's eyes to the ways of the men with their big shoes? Either way, "Mrs. Hart realized with a sudden unalterable conviction that she was lost."

The Tooth

Like The Pillar of Salt, this story was an amazing descent into the broken mind of a housewife with a controlling husband. She has a bad tooth, and he sends her on a bus in the middle of the night to a dentist in New York that he trusts. She's taken a sleeping pill, and her loopy journey leaves you wondering if she ever made it to the oral surgeon. While on the bus, she meets an intriguing stranger who tells her a lyrical anecdote about the city of Samarkand.

The way he cocoons her and watches over her, I begin to wonder if he exists at all outside her mind. It seems an awfully long bus trip...could her husband really have sent her on such a long trip just for the New York dentist?
As the bus started up again they slipped back into the darkness and only the thin thread of lights along the ceiling of the bus held them together, brought the back of the bus where she sat along with the front of the bus where the driver sat and the people sitting there so far away from her. The lights tied them together and the strange man next to her was saying, "Nothing to do all day but lie under the trees."
She makes it to the dentist. She's still always falling asleep, at the diner, at the dentist.
Her tooth, which had brought her here unerringly, seemed now the only part of her to have any identity. It seemed to have had its picture taken without her; it was the important creature which must be recorded and examined and gratified; she was only its unwilling vehicle, and only as such was she of interest to the dentist and the nurse...

"They'll take that tooth out," the dentist said testily, turning away. "Should have been done years ago."
I've stayed too long, she thought, he's tired of my tooth.
The story ends with the hint that she never made it to the oral surgeon, though there is a long passage of her being taken care of by the nurse. I think she was seduced by her tooth, which makes this a freaky horrifying psychotic break of a story. I bet there's something more going on there with Samarkand. Oh wait. Dim recollection of a fantasy novel...could Samarkand have something to do with the devil? This from World Book Online: Samarqand occupies the site of ancient Maracanda. Alexander the Great destroyed Maracanda in 329 B.C. In the 1300's, the Mongol conqueror Timur (also called Tamerlane) chose the city as his capital. WB doesn't say much because three independent sources must verify their facts. According to this wiki, not much is known about Samarkand, except that it's exotic.

Got a Letter From Jimmy

A quick little glimpse of a possible wife-beater, a possibly crazy wife sustained by fantasies of murder, and all of it held together by an unread letter from a possibly estranged son.

The Lottery

You can read this story here. I'll let it speak for itself. After many of the other stories, this one was pretty straightforward, and is apparently the one most read by kids in school.

Of all the stories, I think I like Pillar of Salt and The Tooth the best. I think there was a certain innocence in the women in these stories as their minds sent one to a bad place, one to a good place. Jackson crafted the stories as very visual at the same time she slowly reeled out the understanding to the reader that this was possibly all in the protagonist's head.

1 comment:

Yoknapatawpha Kid said...

Dear Adventures,

nice post! My name is Peter Ricci, and I am a college student and journalist. Currently, I am writing for 'Too Shy to Stop,' an online magazine that focuses on culture and the arts.

My latest story, as chance would have it, is about "The Lottery," and I stumbled across your post while doing research. Here is the link to the story:

So check it out! I think you'll like it. Be sure to leave a comment, also. We love reader input!


Peter Ricci