Study Guide

The Lottery Analysis

By Shirley Jackson

  • Tone

    Deadpan, Detached, Calm

    Jackson's removed tone serves to underscore the horror of the lottery—there's no shift in narrative voice when the story shifts profoundly from generic realism to nightmarish symbolism.

    We go from reading about a small village on a sunny summer day to witnessing the villagers execute a member of their own community, all without the slightest change in tone form the author.

  • Genre

    Horror, Realism

    These two genres go hand-in-hand (or should that be stone-on-head?) in "The Lottery."

    By placing the story in a generic small town, the horror of "The Lottery's" ending stands in stark contrast to the normality of the story that comes before it. In fact, Jackson's portrayal of the small town fooled New Yorker readers so well that letters poured into the office demanding to know exactly which small town practiced the barbaric ritual of stoning.

    The story's impact only increases upon multiple readings. Once you know the true purpose of the lottery, seemingly harmless details within the story take on gruesome dimensions. In the first paragraph, we learn that the villagers like to finish the lottery in time for lunch. This seems reasonable at first, but soon indicates the callousness with which the villagers treat a public execution.

    Likewise, the boys' interest in stones can first be read as childish play, but takes on a sinister cast once we know the stones' purpose. These details demonstrate Jackson's true mastery of the horror genre.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Not surprisingly, this story's title brings to mind the dictionary definition of, well, a lottery: a happening determined by chance.

    There's nothing in that definition about good or bad chance—but we're guessing your mind went straight to giant dollar signs and all-expenses-paid resort vacations.

    In common usage, winning a lottery is cause for celebration. What becomes apparent by the end of Jackson's story, however, is that this lottery sure isn't one you'd want to win. By titling her story "The Lottery," Jackson keeps the real meaning of the story under wraps until the last possible second, allowing her message to deliver maximum impact.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Jackson defers the revelation of the lottery's true purpose until the very end of the story, when "the winner," Tess Hutchison, is stoned to death by friends and family.

    This shocking event marks a dramatic turning point in how we understand the story. We think that Jackson uses stoning as a metaphor for the innate bloodlust that can lurk beneath a modern, civilized façade. 

    But it's a turning point in other ways as well. One critic notes that the ending transforms "The Lottery" from realism to symbolism, as we suddenly understand the town and its inhabitants as being symbolic rather than actual. For Tess Hutchinson, the ending of the lottery is certainly not what she expects. Although she began the story as an eager latecomer to the event, the story's conclusion brings out her hypocrisy: Tess Hutchinson's quite willing to participate in group-sponsored violence until she becomes its victim.

  • Setting

    A Small Village in the Summer, Year Unknown

    This village is cute, rural, and American as apple pie. It could also be located pretty much anywhere.

    We can't confine the violence of the lottery to a specific area or a certain set of people: Jackson's critique is America-wide. The references to other towns that hold lotteries contribute to our sense that Jackson isn't talking about any one community, but is instead critiquing society as a whole.

    As for the lottery's temporal setting—a day in mid-summer—it indicates a period of unconstrained growth and reckless abandon. The children are testing the freedoms of summer. The flowers are "blossoming profusely." The grass is "richly green."

    We might read the village's ritual murder as its method of pruning excessive growth. Many critics point out that the summer solstice was a popular time of pre-historic ritual, and that the lottery's timing is a subtle gesture to earlier primitive rituals.

  • Writing Style

    Clinical, Journalistic

    The very first sentence of the text clues us in:

    The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. (1) 

    The style appears totally barebones, without any overt emotion—or at least no negative emotion. In this regard, it might be said to mirror the attitude of the villagers themselves, who for the most part see the lottery as a naturalized way of life, no more worthy of emotion than the flowers or the grass. The villagers express no overt sympathy for Tess, and neither does the story's narration. For us, this only serves to increase the horror of "The Lottery".

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Lottery

    The lottery is like an 800-pound gorilla of symbols in this story. It's in the title, for Pete's sake. Where do we even begin? Well, let's start with the lottery as a way of upsetting reader expectations. After all, communities across America practice different annual traditions – Easter egg hunts (with origins in early fertility rituals), Christmas tree decorating (check out those patron trees of the Germanic tribes), or July 4th fireworks (well, that one just celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence ...). Anyway, our point is that we're all comfortable with yearly rituals – and it's often not widely known how these celebrations began. See how tradition obscures the history of public ritual?

    Anyway, back to the lottery. So, we associate lotteries with good things (winning cash prizes!) and annual celebrations also seem pleasant. We talk about this in "What's Up With the Title?" so we'll just say here that, like the blooming, cheerful village itself, there's nothing in the lottery that immediately suggests anything is wrong with this set-up. The lottery is, in fact, operating as an allegory of village life itself: at first, it seems harmless, but then we start to wonder what's going on with all the subdued smiles and piles of stones.

    So, if the lottery is an allegory of the community, its rules and proceedings must in some way correspond to real-life elements of village society; we mean, if Jackson was willing meticulously to give so many of the characters heavily symbolic names, we have to assume that she's equally careful in developing the lottery as an allegory.

    One thing that's striking is the lottery's initial breakdown of the village's residents into household. The head of the family draws for the household, and the whole group has to abide by what the head draws. But – and here's where it gets really clever – isn't it true that we are all usually broken down by household? The household, whether it be one of parents and children, couples, or friends, is the first unit of social interaction. What's more, we often do have to abide by the conditions of our households as a whole – the metaphorical strips of paper that our parents draw.

    Some of us get lucky in the draw, and some don't. As soon as we show up in that town square, as soon as we consent to participate in society at large, we leave ourselves open to the chance of catastrophic failure. Even rich Joe Summers and powerful Harry Graves have to draw from the box: we're all subject to the vagaries of luck that the lottery represents. And all of us, eventually, are going to die (although, we can only hope, not by stoning). So the lottery thematizes not only life's chances, but also the sudden, unexpected nature of death.

    About this whole household thing – didn't it seem kind of weird that it was always the man of the house doing the drawing? When it wasn't the man of the house, as in the Dunbar and Watson families, circumstances were curious enough that the villagers feel called upon to comment, finding out that Mr. Dunbar's home with a broken leg, and the Watson boy is old enough to draw for his mother now that his father is mysteriously absent. The norm we see here is that each man is literally choosing not only his fate, but also the fate of his entire family. Women have no agency in this situation, which reflects the overall patriarchal nature of the traditional values of this village society.

    Still, we have to note that, while it's only men who get to do the active choosing, their wives are absolutely willing participants in the event. So even though tradition is keeping them in places of diminished power, they seem to support their inferior status as traditional.

    The origins of the lottery are murky; even Old Man Warner doesn't know when it began. His association of the lottery with the abundance of corn suggests that it began as some kind of overt human sacrifice, in which the murder of one person somehow equaled plentiful corn harvests. Now, though, "the original paraphernalia for the lottery [has] been lost long ago" (5) and there is widespread forgetfulness on the old preparations for the lottery (there used to be a song, a speech, a ritual salute?). But how can you stop something when you don't know how it started? Without a sense of the lottery's history, it's become a totally hollow act, one to be completed in time "for noon dinner" (1).

    The loss of the lottery's origins poses a really profound ethical question: obviously, it wouldn't be a good thing if the lottery began as human sacrifice, but at least then there would be a logic to it. In this story, we see Mr. Graves helping Davy Hutchinson select a strip of paper from the black box, we see the boys collecting their stones: they are being trained to see the lottery as naturally as their parents do. They are, in fact, being instructed in savagery. The lottery has become completely self-perpetuating; it no longer needs an explanation (see our "Character Analysis" on Old Man Warner for further analysis of this point.)

    Perhaps the boys take to the lottery with such enthusiasm because it is mankind's essential nature to be brutal, but the lottery is providing institutional recognition for murder that might not otherwise be allowed. These kids are being taught by their society to kill. Again, we can't ignore the proximity of the story's publication to World War II. We don't want to press this point too hard, but we do think that it is legitimate to wonder whether the experience of mass violence on that scale might not be driving Jackson's commentary on the ways that society breeds violence into every new generation of young people. For more on this topic, see our character analysis of "The Boys."

    The Black Box

    The black box is a physical manifestation of the villagers' connection to tradition; Jackson is pretty explicit on this point, when the subject of replacing the box comes up: "No one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box" (5). They believe that this box may, in part, be made up of shards of the previous boxes, back to the original Black Box. We have to admit, this reminded us of the practice of collecting Christian relics, like hair or bone from the bodies of the saints or pieces of the Cross. We noted, in the Delacroix Family "Character Analysis," how much Jackson likes to upend Christian iconography in this story. Well, this seems like it may be another example: the villagers use this relic of an earlier time to perpetuate their violent, unmerciful traditions.

    Like the lottery as a whole, the black box has no functionality except during this two hours every June: "It had spent one year in Mr. Graves's barn and another year underfoot in the post office and sometimes it was set on a shelf in the Martin grocery and left there" (6). The purpose of the box, like the lottery itself, has become obscure with the passage of time. It is well worn, but the villagers are reluctant to let it go, again, like the lottery itself. In fact, we don't think it's too far-fetched to say that the villagers' treatment of the box represents their thinking on the subject of the lottery as a whole: they're a bit terrified by both the box and the lottery, but they're also too frightened (and, perhaps, fascinated), to drop either one.

    The Three-Legged Stool

    Critic Helen Nebeker argues that the three legs of the stool are like the three aspects of the Christian Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit); the use of the stool to support the black box thus represents the manipulation of religion to support collective violence (source). It is true that this story is so short that everything in it seems like it must be symbolic of something. Another possibility is that this doesn't have to be the Christian Trinity at all; there are trinities all of the place in various religious traditions, like the three Norse Fates, or the Three Graces in Greek myth. The use of this three-legged stool may serve to underline more generally the ritualistic significance of the lottery as a holdover from generic Ye Olden Days.

    The Stones

    Well, as the narrator observes, "[the villagers] still [remember] to use the stones" (76). Not only is stoning a particularly horrifying way to imagine dying, it's also, always, a crowd-generated death. In other words, stones allow everyone in the village to participate freely in the ritual, from the youngest children to Old Man Warner. Stones are also significant as murder weapons because the first human tools were made of stone; this lottery really does seem to have its ancestors in the earliest type of violent human ritual. What's more, stoning comes up specifically in the religious texts of all three of the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. So it's not just an early form of murder; stoning has a strong religious association with community punishment of abomination; in other words, stoning is the classic means for expelling an outsider to reinforce group beliefs.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Objective)

    The narrator of "The Lottery" is super detached from the story.

    Rather than telling us the characters' thoughts or feelings, the narrator simply shows the process of the lottery unfurling. This further underlines the shocking nature of the ending, as our only indications of the lottery's true purpose come from the villagers' nervous manners, rather than from insight into their thoughts.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    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.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Villagers gather in the square.

    The story begins with a sense of liberation. It's a beautiful summer day, the children are out of school, and the villagers have begun assembling in the square to hold a lottery. It is unclear exactly what the prize of this lottery is going to be, and this mystery persists throughout the story. Clearly, the scene has been set for future revelations, which is exactly what the initial situation is supposed to be about.

    Conflict

    Bill Hutchinson gets "it." His wife protests.Explanation/Discussion:

    This is the first overt moment of discord we see in the story, as Tess Hutchinson disagrees with the result of the lottery. Basically, this has conflict written all over it.

    Complication

    Each member of the Hutchinson family nervously draws from the box.

    Things are starting to get fishy. Clearly, winning the lottery does not entail a trip to Hawaii. The plot thickens as we grow closer to discovering who wins the lottery.

    Climax

    Tess Hutchinson wins the lottery.

    We've finally reached the climactic moment of the story, when we find out who has won this famous lottery – but we're still left with several mysteries. What exactly is the prize, and why does Tess seem so unhappy about being selected to receive it? These questions are what lead us to the next stage …

    Suspense

    Tess Hutchinson protests the lottery.

    This whole lottery business is getting weirder and weirder. Tess has won the lottery – so why does she claim it's unfair? We never heard of a California SuperLotto winner protesting the results. We've got growing misgivings about what the prize is, that Tess is so desperate not to get it.

    Denouement

    No dice; the villagers surround Tess carrying stones.

    Here in the denouement, all suspense is resolved. The villagers ignore Tess's protests as they begin to select the stones they're going to use against here. Suddenly, the penny drops for us, the readers: this lottery winds up in the violent death of its winner. All that's left is the execution.

    Conclusion

    The villagers begin attacking.

    "It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her. (80)

    And that's about all we get. Jackson spares us the grisly details, but it's clear that Tess will be stoned to death. The villagers like to finish the lottery in time for lunch, remember?

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    The first act of any story concludes at the point of no return. We see a lot of anticipation in "The Lottery" as the villagers gather in the square and their children gather stones in a vast pile. But the proceedings don't really start until, in the fourth paragraph, Mr. Summers emerges with the black box, which he settles on Mr. Graves's three-legged stool.

    Once the box, which is the physical manifestation of this village's traditions, enters the public square, everyone in the square has no choice but to participate in the lottery. There's no going back.

    Act II

    The second act takes us from the point of no return (basically, the beginning of the lottery) to the moment furthest from the resolution of the story, when the lottery's ended but we don't know who's won the prize. During this act, we get to observe the interactions of the villagers during this ritual: we see Mr. Summers's efficiency in moving the lottery forward, Mrs. Hutchinson's eagerness to participate, Mrs. Delacroix's friendliness, Old Man Warner's crotchety resentment.

    This section of the story is dedicated to showing us the village life that the lottery is designed to protect, as it brings these people together.

    Act III

    The third act is the resolution of the story. This is when we finally find out what exactly is wrong with the lottery, which has seemed only a bit suspicious up until now. The third act begins with paragraph forty-four, when it becomes clear that Bill Hutchinson has drawn the marked paper. Tess Hutchinson's distress at this is the clearest clue we've had so far that the lottery is bad.

    We also see the worst betrayals in this section, as Tess tries to foist the drawing onto her own daughter, Bill doesn't try to protect his wife, and Mrs. Delacroix chooses an especially giant stone to throw at her friend.

    As we discover what the lottery is really about, we see how twisted the tradition has made these villagers, that they are unable to protest the ritual murder of their neighbor, friend, wife, and mother, Tess Hutchinson. While Jackson spares us the gory details, she leaves us with no illusions that the "wrapping up" of this story consists in the stoning of one of its only rounded characters.

  • Allusions

    None