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The Lottery

The Lottery

by Shirley Jackson

Analysis: Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

Christopher Booker is a scholar who wrote that every story falls into one of seven basic plot structures: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Shmoop explores which of these structures fits this story like Cinderella’s slipper.

Plot Type : Tragedy

In keeping with our conviction that no single person in this story is exactly the protagonist (check out the "Character Roles" section for more on this), we're going to stretch Christopher Booker's basic plots definition a little bit. We propose that "The Lottery" is a tragedy – and that the village as the whole is the hero.

Anticipation Stage

At this point of a tragic narrative, Booker tells us, "the hero is in some way incomplete and unfulfilled." Well, this stage in "the Lottery" is literally about anticipation: as the villagers congregate in the first few paragraphs, waiting for the beginning of the lottery, they are clearly looking forward to some "unusual gratification." The collective is focused as a whole on the future conduct of this lottery.

Dream Stage

This section of the classic narrative is a little like the end of the first act in our "Three Act Plot Analysis," the point of no return. This moment comes, for us, when Mr. Summers breaks out the black box, and Mr. Graves, the three-legged stool. The two of them have come together as the town's most important officials to convene the lottery, and the villagers are now all irreversibly committed to seeing the ritual through. None of them can now stop what's going to happen.

Frustration Stage

This is supposed to be the moment when things begin to go wrong for our hero, and we have to admit that this isn't precisely what happens in "The Lottery." It's not so much that the lottery is going wrong for the villagers as it is that we, the readers, are beginning to get intimations that the lottery itself is wrong. This stage covers the actual drawing of paper strips by the heads of households from the black box: remember, when Mr. Graves draws, that the men in the audience are twisting their own strips of paper nervously. The group encourages one another ("Go on, Janey" [27]). All of these somewhat ominous hints foreshadow the revelation of the lottery's fatal character. The villagers, our heroes, really cannot extricate themselves from the lottery now, but none of them seem to be enjoying the waiting (except maybe for Mrs. Tess Hutchinson).

Nightmare Stage

Things at this point are going from bad to worse: the destructive actions of our hero, the village itself, really start to accelerate at this point. The true nightmare begins, in "The Lottery," once Bill Hutchinson has selected his marked paper, and the villagers start to converge around the Hutchinson family. Here's the point when Mr. Graves grabs a paper from tiny Dave Hutchinson (and take a moment to imagine what would have happened if he had drawn the black spot; the villagers would presumably have stoned a small child to death). This is also the stage when Bill Hutchinson pulls the black spot forcibly from his own wife's fist to show the gathered crowd. Even before exactly what the nature of this lottery is, we see the beginnings of neighbor turning on neighbor, family, on family.

Destruction or Death Wish Stage

Here is the moment in the tragedy when the hero is destroyed. What's interesting about the lottery is that physical destruction only overtakes one aspect of the "hero," Tess Hutchinson. The rest of the "hero" (the village) remains intact – but at what cost?

Forgive us an analogy: it's like that famous part in Oedipus the King (check out the Shmoop's coverage of Oedipus the King) when Oedipus tears out his eyes because he's overwhelmed with guilt about having married his mother and killed his father. In this analogy, Tess is like Oedipus's eyes and the village, like the rest of Oedipus: one part has been destroyed, but it's only symptomatic of a larger problem ravaging the body of the village.

This tradition of the lottery may seem natural and inevitable to the villagers but we in the audience know that you can't ritually kill a member of your village every year without serious moral consequences. And indeed, there's plenty of evidence that these abuses have left the village's figurative body permanently damaged: consider the mysteriously absent Mr. Watson, or the suggestion that the eldest Dunbar boy was recently killed (see "The Watsons and the Dunbars" in the "Character Analysis" for more on this). And how about the fact that the villagers have let slip much of the ritual of the lottery, remembering only the most vicious part, the stoning (check out the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section on "the lottery")? Even Old Man Warner bemoans that people aren't what they used to be – the lottery has continued on past any functional purpose, so that now it's a formal, hollow ritual of "civilized" violence.

While the lottery may appear to be a bonding ritual in which the rest of the village is brought closer together thanks to the sacrifice of one member, Jackson seems to imply that a society built on cyclical brutality can only breed more brutality. The rapidity with which Mrs. Delacroix drops her friendship bond with Tess, and with which Bill forsakes her, only underlines that the conception of the lottery is broken beyond salvaging. In regularly destroying one part of the village, this community is undermining the possibility of real love bonds that would sustain the village. What we've got here is both destruction and a death wish: the hero, the village, is both killing the excluded outsider and destroying itself.

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