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Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ and William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity

College of Arts, Christchurch 8041, University of Canterbury, Christchurch 8041, New Zealand
Humanities 2019, 8(3), 137;
Received: 19 June 2019 / Revised: 31 July 2019 / Accepted: 6 August 2019 / Published: 9 August 2019
Shirley Jackson’s, ‘The Lottery,’ is without doubt her most famous work. It is one of the most anthologized short stories in America. However, despite the popularity of the short story, very few critics have attempted to delve deeper into the story’s meaning. Those few critics who have attempted to prove the story’s message have done well in the sense that they have picked up on ‘a’ pattern, but have failed to see that there are also contrasting patterns which cross over and cut through each other. Shirley Jackson deserves far more praise than what she has received for the intricacies, the small details and the well thought out design of the story. When one discovers that Jackson admired William Empson’s, Seven Types of Ambiguities, in which he argues the best authors (such as William Shakespeare) purposely create ambiguities in their writing so that the reader questions and wonders what the author might have meant, one can begin to understand that there is more to Jackson than what critics have argued, and even she herself has said about the story. It is clear that she had an admiration for Empson, as two years before ‘The Lottery,’ she wrote, ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity,’ in which Empson’s book is the coveted object of desire. This 1946 story can be read in two opposing ways. I would argue that ‘The Lottery,’ can be read in five opposing ways. The three-legged stool of the story represents the three pillars or legs of society: economics, politics, and religion. Her story can be read as being anti-capitalist, anti-communist and anti-religious, most specifically making references to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Jackson has done this to critique the idea that these economic, political and religious traditions were created to benefit humanity. However, over time, these systems have become corrupted by their leaders, so that rather than protecting their people, these structures of society are used to both punish their people and to invoke violence upon each other in the name of that tradition. View Full-Text
Keywords: Shirley Jackson; The Lottery; ambiguity; William Empson; economics; politics; religion Shirley Jackson; The Lottery; ambiguity; William Empson; economics; politics; religion
MDPI and ACS Style

Hakaraia, T. Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ and William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Humanities 2019, 8, 137.

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