Two short stories, “Paul’s Case”, written by Willa Cather at the beginning of the twentieth century, and “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson in 1948, explore the effects of conforming to Society’s expectations, and the expectations we place on ourselves. Both stories give us haunting examinations of the outcomes for individuals when society’s expectations force unquestioned loyalty and obedience. We also get a glimpse at the morbid decisions people can make in trying to fulfill unrealistic expectations of themselves to become what they believe society rewards.
Shirley Jackson and Willa Cather develop the setting of their respective stories to help us understand the environmental forces influencing the characters, drawing upon these forces to show us the power, and influence of society’s expectations of our lives. Jackson uses an unknown time and place, which allows the reader to visualize a very old, brutal ritual as if it were occurring in the present. (Jackson) Conversely Cather’s story of a delusional boy occurs in a specific city, Pittsburgh, between the years 1900 and 1910, when industries were growing. This almost unregulated growth created a rich and powerful segment of society in America. It is this wealthy class that Paul most identifies with, but is unable to become a part of through the normal course of his life. (Cather)
Like Cather, Jackson uses the death of ordinary people to emphasize the impact of the major themes of her stories. Though both use different themes to create an emotional connection for the reader, it is each character’s death that conveys the emotional message of the writers.. In “Paul’s Case”, The American Dream is the predominate theme. Cather places the reader in a middle class neighborhood. It is through listening to the resident’s stories about the life of luxury enjoyed by their rich bosses that Paul becomes obsessed with this lifestyle. He sinks into depression when he has to face the reality of his life, fueling his obsession with a life of wealth. Other themes such as deception and the consequences of choices also serve to give the reader insight into Paul’s troubled mind.(Cather)
In contrast, Shirley Jackson utilizes violence and cruelty to shock the emotions of the reader by showing a civilized society engaging in the horrific act of stoning a person to death. Jackson also uses custom and tradition as a theme to illustrate the negative impact of a society when individuals fail to question the rules imposed on them, even when they know those rules to be wrong. In addition, Jackson uses victimization and gender roles to illustrate the negative effects for woman in a traditional patriarchal society. (Jackson)
Willa Cather and Shirley Jackson employ different techniques in their writing styles. Jackson’s impersonal, objective style in “The Lottery” is void of emotion, creating a sense of the ordinary to the act of killing by stoning. In “Paul’s Case”, Cather writes in a prose style filled with specific rhythms and cadence, such as in the last line of the thirty third paragraph “. . . what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything.”(Cather) This style takes the reader through a range of emotions as the story unfolds.
While boththe writers are different in their telling of these two stories both use irony and symbolism to hold the readers interest. When Jackson sets the timing of her story on June 27, the summer solstice, she symbolically ties “The Lottery” to rituals of the past. Cather uses flowers throughout the story as a symbolically hint at Paul’s homosexuality. In Cather’s use of irony she tells how Paul hates Cordelia Street but has him tell us that it is, “ . . . a perfectly respectful middle-class neighborhood.” (Cather) Jackson’s use of irony is found in the calm, peaceful setting of the story, yet the story is about a very violent event.
Willa Cather and Shirley Jackson were skilled writers. Each used similar techniques in developing these to stories such as placing the reader in a particular place in time, embracing similar themes to convey their message, and employing techniques in style that is found in most well written stories. Both stories even conclude with a violent death. Yet for all the similarities, each story is unique. As with their similarities, many of their differences are obvious to the reader. A few have been discussed in this essay. Each author is attempting to impart some message of truth to readers, hoping that the environment of their respective lives is conveyed in such a way that the reader understands the emotions they each felt at the time.