Discuss the various manifestations of unexpected evil in suburban settings in Jackson’s works.
Several examples throughout the collection of short stories can be used to answer this question, in particular "The Renegade," "Got a Letter from Jimmy," and "The Lottery." In "The Renegade," Mrs. Walpole's attempt to deal with a relatively simple problem leads to her neighbors, even her own children, giving gratuitous suggestions how to kill the dog. The narrator of "Got a Letter from Jimmy" internally fantasizes about murdering her husband, though he is wholly unsuspecting, as they share a conversation over a simple meal. Finally, "The Lottery" takes place in a nondescript, ordinary town in America; what begins as a ritualistic tradition turns out to be a brutal and inhumane execution.
What is the significance of homes in Jackson’s fiction?
As witnessed in various stories and novels by Jackson, homes often signify the security of the character's or homeowner's identity. For example, in "Like Mother Used to Make," David finds security in the good maintenance of his home. However, when his apartment is taken over by Marcia, David loses his self-confidence and finds himself complicit in her charade with Mr. Harris. He allows himself to be exiled from his own home, and the story concludes with him in Marcia's bare and unkempt apartment instead.
What is the significance of the James Harris character, who recurs throughout The Lottery and Other Stories?
James Harris, or the Daemon Lover, is an insidiously unobtrusive source of evil. He is never a prominent character, but his appearance always signifies instability and, in some cases, the protagonist's mental illness. For example, in "The Tooth," Clara's acquaintance with James Harris turns out to be a clear indication of her growing insanity and loss of self.
How do loneliness, boredom, and discontentment make Jackson characters more susceptible to mental illness?
Many of Jackson's protagonists, particularly those who are female and unmarried, are dissatisfied with the paths of their lives. For example, the titular character of "Elizabeth" longs to move to a better apartment and improve her career; she believes that James Harris will help her accomplish these goals, and she loses herself in a fantasy future. Similarly, in "The Villager," Miss Clarence forsakes her ambition to become a dancer and has been working as a stenographer for many years. When given the chance to slip into Nancy Roberts's identity, Miss Clarence readily adopts this seemingly more glamorous identity. This lapse into fantasy occurs to Eleanor, the protagonist of Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, to an extreme extent and results in her mental destruction and death.
How does Jackson blur the reader’s perception of reality and fantasy in her short stories?
Often, Jackson portrays the protagonist's fantasies as concrete events. For example, in the beginning of "The Daemon Lover," the reader has no reason to question the narrator's sanity; she behaves like a woman who is preparing for her wedding day. As the story progresses, however, the reader begins to question the existence of James Harris. Finally, at the end of the story, the reader comes to understand that the narrator has most likely imagined his existence. This also occurs in "The Tooth," when James Harris appears to Mrs. Spencer as a real character but turns out to be a figment of her imagination.
Consider how Shirley Jackson’s setting and descriptions in “The Lottery” might evoke such shock and horror from readers.
Indeed, many readers of the first publication of "The Lottery" expressed their shock and disgust with the subject matter of this short story. Jackson's setting of the story in small-town America enables many readers to identify, at least initially, with the characters and their lifestyles. For most of the story, the reader does not suspect any evil intentions in the characters and in the practice of the lottery. Thus, the true nature of the lottery is wholly unexpected and highlights and brutality of ordinary people.
To Jackson, how are the dangers of suburban conformity manifested?
While some of Jackson's stories are not as dramatic as "The Tooth" or "The Lottery," they nonetheless demonstrate the more subtle dangers of suburban conformity. For example, Mrs. Winning's snobby and narrow-minded treatment of the MacLane family results in them moving away. Though Mrs. Winning attempts to befriend the MacLane family, she succumbs to the community's expectations and shuns Mrs. MacLane for hiring a nonwhite gardener.
In Jackson's works, how do some protagonists perceive the differences between country life and city life?
Many of Jackson's protagonists either move from small towns to large cities or vice versa. Those who move from small towns (such as the protagonists of "Elizabeth" and "The Villager") find that their dreams are not attained and settle for less than satisfying lives and careers. Though they are unhappy in New York, they insist upon maintaining the image, at least to their friends and families at home, that their lives are much more glamorous than in reality. Similarly, Margaret, in "Pillar of Salt," is wholly overwhelmed by her vacation to New York and becomes paralyzed by feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia. On the other hand, Mrs. Walpole misses city life and feels suffocated by the small-town gossip that pervades her community.
Explain why familial relationships are significant to protagonists in Jackson’s fiction.
Those of Jackson's protagonists who maintain strong relationships with their family, whether with parents or spouses, are less susceptible to experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction in their lives, and are thus less likely to fantasize about alternate realities. For example, Mrs. MacLane ("Flower Garden") enjoyed a happy marriage before her husband's death and is very close to her loving son, Davey. She is confident enough to adhere to her moral values in the small-minded Vermont community. Mrs. Winning, on the other hand, feels lonely and does not receive much affection from her husband, her in-laws, or her children. As a result, she constantly envies Mrs. MacLane and succumbs to the community's norms, instead of establishing her own identity.
Why do you think Jackson juxtaposes mundane, everyday settings with such unexpected evil actions or thoughts, and how does this impact the reader’s experience?
Jackson's subtle method of revealing the small and subtle evils of seemingly ordinary humans in ordinary communities highlights the capacity for evil in all individuals. She emphasizes that evil is not extraordinary but in fact the opposite. True horror does not require extravagant settings and psychotic murderers. Instead, it can be found in seemingly harmless circumstances, such as the man whom Johnny meets in "The Witch."