Analysis of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson's The Lottery is one of the most famous short stories ever. It's a perfect candidate for anthologies, having a manageable length at about 3,400 words, and a shocking twist ending.
It's told by a third-person objective narrator.
If you haven't read the story yet, I suggest doing that before reading anything about it. It would be a shame to spoil the experience of reading it for yourself.
This article has:
- a summary,
- a look at some themes, and
- some questions for consideration.
Summary of The Lottery
It's June 27th in the village, at about 10 AM. The people start gathering in the square for the lottery. With only about three hundred citizens, they'll be finished by lunch.
The children get there first. Bobby Martin fills his pockets with rocks. The other boys follow his lead.
The men gather and make some quiet small talk. The women arrive next. The parents call their children; each family stands together.
Mr. Summers oversees the lottery, as he does all the other village events. He brings the black wooden box. Mr. Graves brings a stool, on which the box is placed. Mr. Martin and his son hold the box as Mr. Summers stirs the papers inside.
The box is old and worn. It hasn't been replaced because it represents their tradition. The night before, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves had prepared the slips of paper, put them in the box, and secured it for the night.
There are some simple details to attend to before the event commences. Some parts of the tradition have changed or been lost over the years.
As Mr. Summers turns to the villagers, ready to start, Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson hurriedly joins the group. She had forgotten it was lottery day. She exchanges a few words with Mrs. Delacroix before spotting her family. She joins them near the front. There's a little light joking about her lateness.
Mr. Summers gets more serious as he starts the proceedings, asking if anyone is absent. Clyde Dunbar is laid up with a broken leg. His wife will draw for him. Usually, a man would do that, but her son is only sixteen.
Mr. Summers asks if the Watson boy is drawing this year. He's going to draw for himself and his mother.
Everyone is accounted for. The crowd goes silent. Mr. Summers will call the family heads up to draw a slip. They'll refrain from looking at it until everyone has drawn.
He calls them up one at a time, from Adams to Zanini. Meanwhile, the mood is tense.
Mrs. Delacroix and Mrs. Graves talk about how quickly the lottery comes around. Mr. Adams says a village to the north is talking about giving up the lottery. Mrs. Adams says other villages have already stopped. Old Man Warner says it would be crazy to listen to the young folks and give up their tradition.
Everyone has drawn. Mr. Summers gives the word to open the slips. The women ask who it is and who's got it. Bill Hutchinson has it.
Mrs. Dunbar's son is dispatched home to update his father.
Bill stands quietly. His wife Tessie protests that he wasn't given a fair drawing.
Bill's household is the only one left; his oldest daughter is married and, thus, draws as part of her husband's family. Tessie continues to complain.
There are five members in Bill Hutchinson's family. Bill's slip of paper is returned to the box, along with four others to represent the other family members. The other slips are dropped to the ground.
The Hutchinson family has to draw one by one. Mr. Graves helps little Dave Hutchinson draw his. Bill's daughter Nancy draws, followed by his son Billy. Mrs. Hutchinson draws and, lastly, so does Bill.
Mr. Summers gives the word to open the slips. Little Dave's slip is blank. So are Nancy and Billy's. Bill Hutchinson's is blank.
Tessie's paper has a black spot on it. Mr. Summers says they should finish quickly.
The pile of stones the boys had gathered is ready. Mrs. Delacroix picks up a heavy one. The children have their stones already.
Tessie is in a clearing with her hands out. She says it isn't fair. A rock hits her in the head. Old Man Warner urges everyone on. Tessie screams as the crowd closes in on her.
Theme: Potential for Evil in the Ordinary Person
The inhabitants of this village seem like perfectly ordinary people, right up to the reveal at the end. They're concerned with work, finances, gossip and other day-to-day things.
Mrs. Delacroix and Tessie Hutchinson make some friendly small talk before the drawing. After, Mrs. Delacroix scolds Tessie for complaining about the outcome. Shortly after, she picks up a huge stone to drop on Tessie. Mrs. Delacroix seems like a normal person, but she willingly plays her part in this barbaric ceremony.
Tessie Hutchinson, who's the lottery loser, only objects on the basis that it's unfair, not that it's immoral or unnecessary. Presumably, she wouldn't have objected if another family had drawn the unlucky slip. It's likely she wouldn't even have objected strongly if someone else in her family had drawn it. This is implied when she tries to bring her oldest daughter into the draw. Based on this, I don't think she's making a principled objection about the evil of the rite, merely a selfish but understandable one.
The stoning is carried out remorselessly. There's no indication anyone has a heavy heart when the lottery loser is identified.
After the first stage when the family heads show their slips, there no more mention of a general tenseness in the crowd.
When the individual members of the Hutchinson family reveal their slips, there's relief that it's not one of the children—they all know that if it was, they would see the ritual through regardless. This is as far as the crowd's misgivings go. They recognize it would be worse to kill an innocent child, but they'd still be willing to do it.
The story illustrates the potential for evil in the ordinary person, especially if it's carried out as part of a cherished, bigoted belief.
The citizens of the village are reluctant to stand out from the group.
This is hinted at early on when we're told the recently released students' "feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them". They're more comfortable with the routine of the classroom.
Throughout the process, the mood is somber. Mr. Adams comments that the north village is talking about giving up the lottery. Mrs. Adams says other places have already done away with it. Although several citizens have misgivings about the lottery, no one insists that it should end. It's easier to go along with the majority.
Everyone accepts the lottery even though the meaning behind it is no longer in their thoughts. Old Man Warner says there "Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’" He remembers why the lottery was instituted, but this isn't a current saying. The modern citizens carry it out as a tradition only, without believing it has any practical value. Despite this, no one wants to take an individual stand against the group and risk being ostracized.
1. What is the significance of the names of the town leaders?
The lottery is conducted by Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves. These names could parallel the change in mood from the beginning to the end of the story.
Summers implies pleasantness and warmth, which is how things seem at the beginning as we watch a village carry out some ceremony that's important to them. Graves implies death, which is what the ending tells us the story was really leading to.
2. What story elements heighten the effect of the ending?
There are several things that make the ending more powerful:
- The story is set in a village with normal families on a warm summer day with flowers in bloom and green grass.
- The objective narrator presents the details in a matter-of-fact way, letting the emotional effect of the ending hit the reader without any warning.
- The title implies that the central event of the story is something positive—winning a lottery is almost always a good thing.
Each of these elements increases the shock of the ending.
3. What does the black box symbolize?
As a visual representation of the lottery, the black box probably symbolizes it and, by extension, the citizen's inability to abolish it.
The box is shabby, splintered, faded and stained. The lottery also looks like something that has outlived its usefulness, as the villagers don't remember why they do it. Just as they don't want to change the tradition of using that exact box, they don't want to take the much bigger step of eliminating the actual tradition.
Each year there's a little talk about replacing the box; similarly, there's a little bit of suggestion to end the lottery.