When Shirley Jackson’s chilling story ‘The Lottery’ was first published in 1948 in The New Yorker, it generated more letters than any work of fiction the magazine had ever published. Readers were furious, disgusted, occasionally curious, and almost uniformly bewildered.
The public outcry over the story can be attributed, in part, to The New Yorker’s practice at the time of publishing works without identifying them as fact or fiction. Readers were also presumably still reeling from the horrors of World War II. Yet, though times have changed and we all now know the story is fiction, ‘The Lottery’ has maintained its grip on readers decade after decade.
‘The Lottery’ is one of the most widely known stories in American literature and American culture. It has been adapted for radio, theater, television, and even ballet. The Simpsons television show included a reference to the story in its ‘Dog of Death’ episode (season three).
‘The Lottery’ is available to subscribers of The New Yorker and is also available in The Lottery and Other Stories, a collection of Jackson’s work with an introduction by the writer A. M. Homes. You can hear Homes read and discuss the story with fiction editor Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker for free.
‘The Lottery’ takes place on June 27, a beautiful summer day, in a small New England village where all the residents are gathering for their traditional annual lottery. Though the event first appears festive, it soon becomes clear that no one wants to win the lottery. Tessie Hutchinson seems unconcerned about the tradition until her family draws the dreaded mark. Then she protests that the process wasn’t fair. The ‘winner,’ it turns out, will be stoned to death by the remaining residents. Tessie wins, and the story closes as the villagers—including her own family members—begin to throw rocks at her.
The story achieves its terrifying effect primarily through Jackson’s skillful use of contrasts, through which she keeps the reader’s expectations at odds with the action of the story.
The picturesque setting contrasts sharply with the horrific violence of the conclusion. The story takes place on a beautiful summer day with flowers ‘blossoming profusely’ and the grass ‘richly green.’ When the boys begin gathering stones, it seems like typical, playful behavior, and readers might imagine that everyone has gathered for something pleasant like a picnic or a parade.
Just as fine weather and family gatherings might lead us to expect something positive, so, too, does the word ‘lottery,’ which usually implies something good for the winner. Learning what the ‘winner’ really gets is all the more horrifying because we have expected the opposite.
Like the peaceful setting, the villagers’ casual attitude as they make small talk— some even cracking jokes—belies the violence to come. The narrator’s perspective seems completely aligned with the villagers’, so events are narrated in the same matter-of-fact, everyday manner that the villagers use.
The narrator notes, for instance, that the town is small enough that the lottery can be ‘through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.’ The men stand around talking of ordinary concerns like ‘planting and rain, tractors and taxes.’ The lottery, like ‘the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program,’ is just another of the ‘civic activities’ conducted by Mr. Summers.
Readers may find that the addition of murder makes the lottery quite different from a square dance, but the villagers and the narrator evidently do not.
If the villagers were thoroughly numb to the violence—if Jackson had misled her readers entirely about where the story was heading—I don’t think ‘The Lottery’ would still be famous. But as the story progresses, Jackson gives escalating clues to indicate that something is amiss.
Before the lottery starts, the villagers keep ‘their distance’ from the stool with the black box on it, and they hesitate when Mr. Summers asks for help. This is not necessarily the reaction you might expect from people who are looking forward to the lottery.
It also seems somewhat unexpected that the villagers talk as if drawing the tickets is difficult work that requires a man to do it. Mr. Summers asks Janey Dunbar, ‘Don’t you have a grown boy to do it for you, Janey?’ And everyone praises the Watson boy for drawing for his family. ‘Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it,’ says someone in the crowd.
The lottery itself is tense. People do not look around at each other. Mr. Summers and the men drawing slips of paper grin ‘at one another nervously and humorously.’
On first reading, these details might strike the reader as odd, but they can be explained in a variety of ways — for instance, that people are very nervous because they want to win. Yet when Tessie Hutchinson cries, ‘It wasn’t fair!’ readers realize there has been an undercurrent of tension and violence in the story all along.
As with many stories, there have been countless interpretations of ‘The Lottery.’ For instance, the story has been read as a comment on World War II or as a Marxist critique of an entrenched social order. Many readers find Tessie Hutchinson to be a reference to Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for religious reasons. (But it’s worth noting that Tessie doesn’t really protest the lottery on principle—she protests only her own death sentence.)
Regardless of which interpretation you favor, ‘The Lottery’ is, at its core, a story about the human capacity for violence, especially when that violence is couched in an appeal to tradition or social order.
Jackson’s narrator tells us that ‘no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.’ But although the villagers like to imagine that they’re preserving tradition, the truth is that they remember very few details, and the box itself is not the original. Rumors swirl about songs and salutes, but no one seems to know how the tradition started or what the details should be.
The only thing that remains consistent is the violence, which gives some indication of the villagers’ priorities (and perhaps all of humanity’s). Jackson writes, ‘Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.’
One of the starkest moments in the story is when the narrator bluntly states, ‘A stone hit her on the side of the head.’ From a grammatical standpoint, the sentence is structured so that no one actually threw the stone—it’s as if the stone hit Tessie of its own accord. All the villagers participate (even giving Tessie’s young son some pebbles to throw), so no one individually takes responsibility for the murder. And that, to me, is Jackson’s most compelling explanation of why this barbaric tradition manages to continue.