Study Guide

The Lottery Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Shirley Jackson

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.