“The Lottery” is a short story written in 1948 by Shirley Jackson. It was first published in June of that year in New Yorker magazine. It tells the story of a present day small town that conducts a lottery every summer on June 27. The purpose of the lottery is not revealed until the very end of the story. Reception for the story at the time was mixed. Many readers were shocked by the ending. It has since become an American classic and regarded as one of the most popular American short stories of all time. It is a required reading for many high school students. “The Lottery” is a short but complex story that is rich in symbolism, foreshadowing and based on Jackson’s personal experiences.
In an article written in 2013 by Franklin for New Yorker magazine, the author reviewed hundreds of letters that were received by the magazine the summer that “The Lottery” was published. Readers were shocked, disgusted and confused by the story. Since that time, however, the story has become a classic of American literature. It has been adapted as a play, movie, a ballet and was even parodied by the cartoon television series, The Simpsons (Franklin).
Jackson has stated that the story was based on the small town, North Bennington, Vermont where she resided with her husband (Franklin). She felt like an outsider in the small town. Jackson also reported that the characters were all based on inhabitants of the town. Jackson also stated that there were elements of anti-Semitism in the story (Franklin). According to Franklin, Jackson wanted to show the mindless cruelty and persecution committed by people without questioning the reason for it.
“The Lottery” tells the story of a small town lottery. There are three hundred inhabitants of the village. The gather every June 27th to conduct a lottery. The purpose of the lottery is not revealed until the end of the story. The people of the village assemble in the town square. Mr. Summers, a business owner, conducts and manages the lottery. It is unclear why he is in charge. There is a large black box in which slips of paper with each of the inhabitants names written upon them. One resident, Clyde Dunbar is not present due to a broken leg. Another resident, Tessie Hutchinson arrives late. The residents group together by families. The head of each household is called forward to draw a slip from the black box. They are not allowed to look at the slip of paper until everyone has drawn. The Hutchinson family “wins” the draw. The family now draws from five slips that have been returned to the box. The children chose first, then the parents, Bill and Tessie. Tessie draws the slip with the black spot. She has won the lottery. She protests as the villagers pick up stones from a pile and stone her to death.
Tessie Hutchinson, the main character, arrives late to the drawing. As she hurries through the crowd, other residents greet her and tease her about being late. She claims she was busy doing chores and almost forgot. The act of being late puts the spotlight on her. She stands out from the rest of the crowd. When her husband draws the marked slip, she protests that he did not have enough time to choose correctly. She continues to protest when she draws the marked slip and when the other residents stone her.
Old Man Warner is seventy seven years old. He remarks that he has made it through seventy seven lotteries. He also comments on the practice being abandoned by other villages. He states, “Pack of crazy foolsNext thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves.” (Jackson 294).
The use of foreshadowing in the story is brilliant. As the story opens, Jackson describes, “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones.” (Jackson 291). The children are the first to arrive and begin to amass a pile of stones, “Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroixeventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raid of other boys.” (Jackson 291).
Tessie’s late arrival also makes her stand out from the crowd, “’Clean forgot what day it was’ she said to Mrs. Delacroix” (Jackson 292). As she moves through the crowd to get to her husband and children other residents greet and tease her, “’Here comes you Missus, Hutchinson,” and “Bill, she made it after all.’” (Jackson (293). When she begins to protest when her husband draws the marked slip, the reader realizes that winning the lottery is not a good thing, “Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers, ‘You didn’t give him time enough to pick any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!” (Jackson 296).
When Mr. Summers is assembling the list of families, he questions Mrs. Watson about who should be considered the head of family, her or her son, since there is no Mr. Watson. “Then he asked, ‘Watson boy drawing this year?’ A tall boy in the crowd raised his hand. ‘Here,’ he said, “I’m drawing for my mother and me.’” Mr. Summers replies to the boy, “’Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it.’” (Jackson 294). It is not revealed where Mr. Watson is or what happened to him. Mr. Summer’s reply suggests that Mr. Watson may have been last year’s winner.
In his article, Shields refers to the “arbitrary violence” that is depicted in the story (412). The cruelty of stoning somebody to death who is chosen through a lottery and the mob mentality that accompanies it represents society’s persecution of selected groups of people. “She wanted to dramatize graphically the pointless violence in people’s lives, to reveal the general inhumanity to man.” (Shields 413). Since the dawn of time, groups of people have been singled out and treated inhumanely and cruelly. Jackson felt like an outsider in her small Vermont town which was the inspiration for this story (Shields 413).
The residents of this village have been following this barbaric tradition for hundreds of years. The story describes how some of the rituals have been lost over the years, but the act of violence and the selection process have remained the same. “Because so much of the ritual has been forgotten or discarded, Mr. Summers had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations.” (Jackson 292). Blindly following this practice represents people’s unwillingness to make change and easy acceptance of customs. Tessie was warmly greeted when she arrived late, when it is revealed that she had drawn the marked slip, the villagers turn on her without question, “’It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed and they were upon her.” (Jackson 302).
Me writes in her blog, “The names of each character hold significant meaning”. The lottery takes place in June and is managed by a man named Mr. Summer. His assistant, the postmaster is named Mr. Graves. This symbolizes that there will be a death. The family name Dellacroix means crucifix in French; the crucifix is a symbol of the persecution of Jesus (Me).
The black box that holds the slips represents the tradition. The current box is shabby but constructed from pieces of the original box, “there was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that preceded it.” (Jackson 292). The box symbolizes the villagers unwavering acceptance of the tradition. It is stated, “Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.” (Jackson 292). It is ironic that certain parts of this ritual have been kept while others have been lost over the years. It is remarked that there was once some sort of “perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly” (Jackson 292) that was no longer performed. The color black of the box is representative of death (Me).
“The Lottery” is a powerful story that tells the story of a village that blindly follows tradition. The arbitrary nature of humans to select a person to persecute is the main theme and based on Jackson’s experience in her small Vermont town. Jackson brilliantly builds the suspense of the story through the use of foreshadowing and symbolism. The opening paragraph describes an idyllic summer day in a small village and the closing ends with Tessie Hutchinson being stoned to death. Jackson fills the story with rich details that are clearly understood after the ending is revealed.
Franklin, Ruth. “’The Lottery’ Letters.” The New Yorker 25 Jun 2013. Web 2 Jul 2015
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Short Stories. New York: Farmer and Giroux, 2005.
Ma, Martine. “Literary Analysis: ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson.” Martine’s Blog, 10 Jun.
2013. Web 2 Jul 2015 https://martinema.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/literary-analysis-essay-
Shields, Patrick. “Arbitrary Condemnation and Sanctioned Violence in Shirley Jackson’s
‘The Lottery’.” Contemporary Justice Review 7.4 (2004): 411-419. Web 2 Jul. 2015.