Shirley Jackson's use of unevolved characters
Unevolved characters may leave readers feeling unfulfilled and disappointed and be a mark of amateurish writing. Yet, Shirley Jackson used characters that remain unchanged by the story’s end as a device to lead readers to focus on the morals and themes of her stories. The Lottery and Other Stories, a collection of selected stories by Shirley Jackson, offers 25 tales, some with unresolved plotlines or with unevolved characters, spotlighting morals or ethical situations.
The stories “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” “Flower Garden,” “Of Course,” and “The Lottery” display ways unevolved characters and unresolved plotlines may assist in focusing readers’ attention on themes audiences may be uncomfortable dealing with. These stories are closer to vignettes, highlighting a moment in time, much like a snapshot of human behavior, to showcase a negative or sinister aspect of the human condition, including racism, violence, superiority, ignorance, or fear.
“After You, My Dear Alphonse” offers two views, one by Mrs. Wilson and another by her son Johnny, demonstrated by their treatment of Johnny’s friend Boyd, who is Black. Both Mrs. Wilson and Johnny are friendly towards Boyd, but Johnny’s friendliness comes from a genuine and honest place, while Mrs. Wilson’s friendliness teems with racial bigotry and unrealized snobbery. “‘I’ll bet he’s strong, though,’ Mrs. Wilson said. She hesitated. ‘Does he…work?’ ‘Sure,’ Johnny said. ‘Boyd’s father works in a factory.’ ‘There, you see?’ Mrs. Wilson said. ‘And he certainly has to be strong to do that—all that lifting and carrying at a factory.’ ‘Boyd’s father doesn’t have to,’ Johnny said. ‘He’s a foreman.’ Mrs. Wilson felt defeated.” (Jackson 2005) While Jackson does an excellent job in subtly showing Mrs. Wilson’s underlying racism, the end of the story has no resolution or character growth. Mrs. Wilson is convinced of her bigoted viewpoint, frustrated with Boyd for not adhering to how she believes a Black family should live. With no evolution of character, this ending forces the reader to deal with uncomfortable themes of racism, superiority, and ignorance.
The story “Flower Garden” follows the same themes as “After You, My Dear Alphonse.” Mrs. Winning and her son befriend a single mother, Mrs. MacLane, and her son who have moved into a neighboring cottage. When Mrs. MacLane befriends and hires Mr. Jones, who is Black, to tend her garden, Mrs. Winning’s underlying racism causes their friendship to wilt. Jackson once again creates the subtle nuances and dialog needed to display the characters' personalities: Mrs. MacLane as understanding and accepting versus Mrs. Winning as intolerant and bias. The story ends with Mrs. Winning believing she is right and has little to no guilt about ending her (and her son’s) friendship. “Mrs. MacLane and Mr. Jones both turned, and Mrs. MacLane waved and called out, ‘Hello!’ Mrs. Winning swung around without speaking and started, with great dignity, back up the hill toward the old Winning house.” (Jackson 2005) Again, Jackson ends the story without any growth in character or satisfactory comeuppance, but it is in this unresolved situation that the reader is left to reflect on deeper, uncomfortable themes.
In the story “Of Course,” Mrs. Taylor and her daughter Carol meet new neighbors Mrs. Harris and her son James and soon find out the Harris’ don’t partake in movies, newspapers, board games, and a variety of other pastimes as decreed by Mr. Harris. While the women are pleasant enough in their conversation, Jackson creates tension between the two families tinged with feelings of superiority, offense, and personal judgements. At the story’s end, the two women pleasantly part ways not having altered their own view points or felt compassion for the other family. “They both stopped in the doorway and waved, and Mrs. Taylor and Carol waved back. ‘Can’t I go to the movies,’ Carol said, ‘please, Mother?’ ‘I’ll go with you, dear,’ Mrs. Taylor said.” (Jackson 2005) The story is cleverly designed to leave audiences to ponder the morals of each character and the themes of superiority and intolerance.
As with the previous stories, “The Lottery” is presented as a moment in time to highlight the darker and murkier aspects of the human condition. A small village celebrates the annual lottery: a person is chosen to be sacrificed to ensure a good harvest. While the ending shocks readers with the stoning of a woman, characters are unevolved—the community does not change its ways and does not revolt against or question the common practice (one person does voice that other places have stopped the lottery, but she is quickly dismissed). This ending follows Jackson’s formula of subtle tension building and no release. No one tries to save the woman and even though the woman begs them to stop, she does not attempt to run away; the lottery commences, proceeds, and ends as it always has. “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use the stones.... Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Hurry up.’” (Jackson 2005) The story highlights themes and morals concerning the consequences of fear and ignorance, rather than focusing on character development or a resolution to an issue.
These four pieces in The Lottery and Other Stories are excellent examples of Jackson’s ability to build tension to unevolved characters and unresolved plotlines, showcasing a theme or moral. “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” “Flower Garden,” “Of Course,” and “The Lottery” highlight a point, rather than a character journey. This device, used gracefully, leaves readers to mull over the darker aspects of the human condition.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2005. Kindle.