‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson, a twisted tale of village culture, has been thrilling audiences for three generations. In this lesson, we’ll review this classic short story from 1948 and analyze the thematic elements.
A Look at ‘The Lottery’
Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ is a classic American short story known for its shocking twist ending and its insightful commentary on cultural traditions. It was originally printed in The New Yorker magazine in 1948.The tale begins with all the villagers gathering in the town square for the annual lottery (that’s not the twist), as if it were just another day.
Children are playing with stones while the adults swap stories of farming and gossip. It’s not until the lottery begins, over halfway through the story, that we start to suspect that all is not as it seems.The real key is when the ‘winner,’ Tessie, declares that it isn’t fair that she won. Spoiler alert: It turns out that the stones the children were playing with at the start of the story will be used for a ritual stoning, and the winner will be killed by the town (that’s the twist).
Analysis of ‘The Lottery’
Once the true nature of the lottery is revealed, the text can be viewed in a new light, much like the Sixth Sense becomes an entirely different movie once you know the ending. Jackson has used foreshadowing to hint at the ominous ending, dropping a few hints about the story’s twist in the opening scene.While the children collecting stones at the beginning of the story appears to be a game, it is in fact setting the stage for a communal murder.
The first time Tessie protests, Mrs. Delacroix and Mrs. Graves tell her to be a good sport, as if it were something less than her life on the line. Even their names — Delacroix, meaning of the cross, and Graves — foreshadow the fatal twist ahead.Finally, when Tessie’s children reveal that they have not been chosen, they both ‘beam and laugh,’ glossing over the fact that it means death for another family member.
In fewer than 3,500 words, Jackson has taken the reader from an idyllic small town awaiting the start of an annual celebration to a brutal and yet totally acceptable stoning.
Themes in ‘The Lottery’
While the story of ‘The Lottery’ embodies several themes, its primary focus is a society’s need to reexamine its traditions, especially if they are outdated and savage. The lottery appears to be a ritual sacrifice of a town citizen to ensure good crops, although the word ‘sacrifice’ is never used in the story.Old Man Warner, ‘the oldest man in town,’ references an old saying, ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ He also comments throughout the tale on the folly of youth, wanting to change everything. When someone also notes that other towns are talking about giving up the lottery and that some already have, Warner calls them a pack of crazy fools.
This also lets us know that this is not the only town with a lottery. In fact, the setting is pointedly vague, as though it could take place anywhere, anytime.At the start of the story, when the children, who are just starting summer vacation, are gathering, Jackson notes that ‘the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them.’ This alludes to the idea that freedom can be uncomfortable, and it is easier to live within a familiar structured environment, in this case school. For the adults, it is easier to live under the old traditions, even if they defy reason and compassion, than to risk the uncertainty of change.The story also touches on the idea that people are fine with inhumane practices until they start to apply to them personally.
Tessie is late to the lottery, having forgotten what day it is, and laughs that she couldn’t leave her dishes in her sink. We learn that the lottery is supervised by Mr. Summers, the same man who manages the square dances, teen club, and Halloween program, as if those were comparable events. No one protests the lottery, including Tessie, until it starts to affect her family and even then her husband tells her to shut up.
When ‘The Lottery’ was originally published in 1948, Americans were still grappling with the end of World War II and the terrible discovery of the true scope of the Holocaust. The story’s key ideas are that traditions need to be reexamined, and inhumane practices are less offensive when they are happening to someone else.
These ideas are not unfamiliar to our society today wrestling with intolerance, terrorism, environmental concerns, and a host of other headline issues. In this day and age almost 70 years later, when some social reforms can happen at lightning speed while other reforms whither on the vine, it is not surprising that ‘The Lottery’ feels both timeless and hauntingly relevant and that the surprise ending still shocks today.
Notes on ‘The Lottery’
- ‘The Lottery’ was published at the of World War II
- The story centers on a town’s disturbing tradition
- Themes discussed in the story include the need to address old traditions, accepting the unacceptable, and the practice of ignoring horrible deeds until they become personal
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Summarize the tale of ‘The Lottery’
- Recall when and where the story was published
- Analyze how foreshadowing is used in the story
- Discuss the themes addressed in the story and how they touched on the current events of the time when the story was written