The short story may be one of the writing formats best suited for creating a feeling of suspense in readers. The limited number of pages and a restricted ability to show characters in different situations can give authors an opportunity to focus on a single small event and its environment. In 1948, Shirley Jackson utilized this aspect of short stories and created “The Lottery.” The story can be considered an example of a tension-building narrative with a surprising reveal at the end, as Matek has highlighted Jackson’s ability to intrigue her audience through foreshadowing (70). However, “The Lottery” also has some themes that deserve analysis due to their connection with people’s daily experience. In her short story “The Lottery,” Jackson explores the problems of traditions and shows people’s attachment to the established order in a negative light.
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The story does not follow a protagonist but instead resembles an impartial description of an event. The author begins by stating the date and time. It is notable that the particular date, June 27th, seems essential for the author to include (Jackson 1). Here she gives the readers a first small clue to the story’s contents. She also mentions the weather and describes the scenery in great detail. All events of the story happen in one place – the village’s central square. People of all ages start gathering in the square for a lottery, which is regarded as an important annual tradition in many places, including this one. As Mr. Summer arrives to lead the lottery, men, women, and children find their families and stand in anticipation. Mr. Summers starts the usual procedures. He creates a list of families, checks for absentees, and asks who will be drawing the papers from a black box.
Mr. Summers begins to call out families, who send their oldest men to take their papers. Then, as each person reveals the contents of their paper slip, the readers learn about the “winner” – the person who has drawn a slip of paper with a black dot, Mr. Hutchinson and his family. They pick papers again, which reveal Tessie, Mr. Hutchinson’s wife, to be the final winner. As she starts screaming about the lottery’s unfairness, the villagers stone her to death.
As was mentioned, Jackson provides her readers with many details about the location and time. The author also describes the characters and gives a name to each of them. For example, the Hutchinson family has Bill, Tessie, and their children: Bill, Jr., Nancy, and Dave. It is possible that each character is given a name so that it seems that each has an equal place in the story. Each villager is recognized as a part of the narrative, and thus no one is explicitly highlighted. Such attention to detail gives readers an impression of the story’s realness (Thomas 7). They see distinct individuals with connections and ties living a regular life in a familiar setting. The events of the story seem more real and plausible because of it. Therefore, when the story ends with a gruesome and illogically violent scene, the audience may be more affected by it, as other parts of the narrative resemble real life so closely.
Through the description of clothes and behavior, the author establishes one character and foreshadows the ending at the same time (Anderson and Kröger 76). Tessie arrives at the square later than everyone else and tells everybody that she completely forgot about the lottery. She is tired and disheveled, and her manners are different from those of the quiet and placid women of the village. While her relationship with everyone seems normal, this distinction sets her apart from the start.
Another person who is different from the rest of the crowd is Old Man Warner, who has been participating in the lottery for seventy-seven years. He is a symbol of long-lasting traditions and customs (Bailey 38). He recalls old sayings and opposes any possible changes to the lottery. Moreover, Old Man Warner claims that this ritual makes people civilized and believes that it is tied to the outcomes of the harvest season. In the end, while Tessie’s screams about the lottery’s injustice are ignored, Old Man Warner’s beliefs are reinforced once again as the crowd does not even stop to think before they throw stones at their neighbor, friend, and relative.
The central theme that Jackson discusses in this story is conformity to tradition and unwillingness to change. People in this community do not want to change anything and are used to blindly following the ritual even though it leads to one community member’s death. Even Tessie herself only starts protesting after “winning” the lottery (Holdefer 274). It is unclear whether she would be against the rules if somebody else had the winning paper. Perhaps she would join the crowd in these different circumstances. This way of thinking is what Jackson tries to reveal to the audience. The members of Tessie’s family do not change their minds about the tradition even when their mother’s and wife’s life is taken. The acceptance of old and unnecessary traditions is highlighted as absurd and dangerous. Thus the author tries to show that each custom and belief needs to be questioned because the lack of a viable justification can lead to a gruesome end.
In addition, the motifs of group conformity and baseless prejudice against others may also be themes of the short story. Everyone in the village is expected to participate in the lottery regardless of his or her age and occupation. One man is absent only because he broke a leg and could not come. The family hierarchy is also seen as a necessity for each household, as men take the position of a leader while women are expected to have no authority without any apparent reasoning behind it. Similarly, the chosen person is killed because of an invented justification that does not follow any logic. The persecution of a seemingly innocent person is promoted by the villagers and especially Old Man Warner not because of their cruelty or a lack of compassion, but because of their upbringing.
The black wooden box used for the lottery can serve as the short story’s primary symbol. Jackson describes it as shabby and “no longer completely black but splintered badly,” which means that it is incredibly old (3). In fact, the box is made from the wood of the previous version, which was built by the village’s first settlers. The box is an example of how tradition is supported and enforced, while innovation is neglected.
The lottery in Jackson’s short story can be viewed as a symbol of any old and unreasonable tradition that people refuse to let go of. The author clearly considers such customs baseless and attempts to show that the reasoning behind upholding such traditions is completely absurd. The violent ending is contrasted with the mundane lives of the villagers and their perceptions of the annual ritual. The author foreshadows the conclusion through small details and creates a feeling of unease to increase the effect of the final message.
Anderson, Melanie R., and Lisa Kröger, editors. Shirley Jackson, Influences and Confluences. Routledge, 2016.
Bailey, Ted. “Sacred Violence in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.” B.A.S. British and American Studies, vol. 20, 2014, pp. 37-42.
Holdefer, Charles. “Another Kind of Hell: Fundamentals of the Dystopian Short Story.” Journal of the Short Story in English, vol. 64, 2015, pp. 263-275.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. The New Yorker, 1948.
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Matek, Ljubica. “Teaching Horror Literature in a Multicultural Classroom.” ELOPE; English Language Overseas Perspectives and Enquiries, vol. 12, no. 1, 2015, pp. 61-73.
Thomas, P. L. “Adventures in Adaptation.” Teaching towards Democracy with Postmodern and Popular Culture Texts, edited by Patricia Paugh et al., Sense Publishers, 2014, pp. 7-19.