jackson, vonnegut, and garcia marquez

literary masterminds in the short story landscape

As short stories, these pieces of literature are quick, one-sitting reads. Their succinct styles embody all the intensity of larger works of writing, but pack a quick and very effective punch that drives points home in hugely effective ways. Carefully and artfully crafted, every word in a short story counts and every sentence carries meaning. These three stories all inspire reflection on who we are and what we do.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

Written in the late 40s, this story initially received negative responses; it disturbed people enough for them to send hate mail and even unsubscribe from “The New Yorker”, where the piece was first published. Since then, however, it has become a classic American short story, a piece everyone should read and think about.

“The Lottery” takes place over a matter of hours on a clear, sunny June day, in the middle of small town America. On this day, all 300 residents of the town gather in the main square to perform their annual inauguration ceremony to welcome the upcoming harvest season. This tradition-soaked event is referred to as “the lottery.” Families take turns drawing numbers from a large black box on the main stage in the plaza and tension builds as rumors spread about other communities nearby. People question whether or not the other towns might be giving up the lottery, a tradition that has been around for as long as the last living memory can recount.

Jackson frames this mysterious lottery as an intense ritualistic performance. Yet soon it becomes obvious that the townspeople are simply following through the process of the lottery without truly thinking about their actions. When the announcer says it’s time to grab stones, they grab stones because their parents grabbed stones. They yell because their grandparents yelled. They throw because everyone throws. Through the story, Jackson shows the danger of mindless acceptance of tradition. She reminds you to think about what you do and why you do it.

“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s satirical short story, written in 1961, is laden with a heavy dose of subliminal criticism towards egalitarian policy and authoritative governments. He crafted a story to spotlight the dangers of total social equality and highlight the risks that emerge when measures are taken to actively level society. The story is as extreme as it is stirring, with action, thought, allure, and everything in between.

In the eerie future of 2081, everyone is equal. Literally equal. Because of amendments passed to the American constitution, no one is smarter, no one is uglier, no one is weaker, or faster, or happier, or more interesting. To attain this physical and mental equality, the government uses various techniques invariably amounting to torture: radio blasting the minds of those with “above-average” intelligence, weight bags around the necks of those “too strong,” and face masks on those “disturbingly pretty.” As for people that are too far above average, the government doesn’t hesitate to kill, all in the name of equality.

The story follows the parents of young Harrison, who is thrown in jail for his “above average” intelligence, looks, and demeanor. His father has been severely handicapped with weights and a radio noise system blasting his thoughts every couple minutes, but his mother, on the other hand, is essentially left as she was born, largely air-headed and flighty. They spend an afternoon together watching the breaking news of a day in “equalized” society unfold.

Vonnegut makes a strong case with this story. He shows that as “equality” is achieved, it comes at a great cost: Society spirals down into a community of slow and bullheaded people who are scared of themselves and the government. Vonnegut proposes that such equality, in both process and outcome, resembles danger more than any other kind of ideal. He turns the idea of perfect utopian equality into a scary dystopia, forcing us to ask what the world would be like if everyone was rendered equal. Is total equality really what we want? Where would our freedom go? Where would individual achievement go? Where would we go? Vonnegut drives these hard, albeit important, questions into the open so the reader can’t escape without first addressing them.

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez

Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez published “Leaf Storm”, a collection of short stories, in 1955. With this compilation he laid one of the first foundational stones for the magical realism genre that changed the literary landscape in Latin America and rapidly proliferated throughout the world.

In one story, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” García Márquez sets up a picturesque seaside town where, one day, a villager finds a washed up old man lying on the beach. The man is weathered and appears senile, and the villager discovers that the man has long wings sprouting from his back. The villager runs to his wife and they decide to bring the old man in, identifying him as possibly an angel. They keep him out in their chicken coop until further notice. Soon, as word spreads of this mysterious man, crowds draw from around the world to examine the new creature. The town is challenged by the presence of the old man with wings and they are forced to respond to take a stand on how they want to treat outsiders within the community.

García Márquez showcases the rare coexistence of cruelty and compassion that subsists in human nature. With his signature magical flair, he uses careful and exquisite imaginative detail to dig even deeper into the human psyche and extrapolates conditions of humanity that can leave us with a potent concoction of guilt, admiration, and thankfulness.