Study Guide

The Lottery Themes

By Shirley Jackson

  • Society and Class

    On a basic level, "The Lottery" asks us to think about the rituals and traditions we unthinkingly follow as members of our society. Beyond critiquing the ways in which custom obscures right and wrong, the lottery also becomes a way of analyzing "traditional" social and gender divisions: the random distribution of paper means some families are fortunate and others aren't.

    We think it's significant that it's paper that has come to replace wood chips—much as paper money has taken the place of gold or goods for barter. The paper, either in the lottery or in your wallet, is symbolic of exchange value; as we get more "civilized," we lose track of what this paper really means. In the case of both the lottery and cash, paper can mean fortune, either good or bad—and it's disturbing how much life (and wealth) can be left up to the gambles of chance.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How would you characterize the village's society? Happy? Affluent? Patriarchal? How does it compare to your own village/town/city?
    2. What kinds of values do the townspeople seem to hold about the social roles of men and women? Do these roles have any connection to the lottery?
    3. What's up with the children of the village – specifically the boys – being the first to stockpile stones? What, if anything, is Jackson trying to suggest about children?
    4. Do any class differences exist in "The Lottery"? What influence might that have on the story?

    Chew on This

    The villagers of "The Lottery" live in an intensely patriarchal society.

    The anonymity of the village lends the story a sense of universality.

  • Tradition and Customs

    "The Lottery" tells the story of an annual tradition practiced by the villagers of an anonymous small town, a tradition that appears to be as vital to the villagers as New Year celebrations might be to us.

    Yet, subtle hints throughout the story, as well as its shocking conclusion, indicate that the villagers' tradition has become meaningless over time. What's particularly important about tradition in "The Lottery" is that it appears to be eternal: no one knows when it started, and no one can guess when it will end. Its apparent lack of history is what makes tradition so powerful: it's like a force of nature, and the people of the village can't even imagine rebelling against it.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. How has the lottery evolved over time, and how can we tell? Does its evolution give us clues about its origin?
    2. Who supports the lottery? Who might want to stop it? What kinds of arguments are produced for and against the lottery?
    3. Is there any evidence indicating why the villagers might participate in the lottery?

    Chew on This

    The lottery has become a meaningless tradition for the villagers to follow.

    The lottery is part of the village's traditional life and as such, still holds meaning for the villagers.

  • Hypocrisy

    "The Lottery" explores sudden shifts in opinion and loyalties—in other words, hypocrisy. But it's worth asking whether changes in allegiance during the lottery are conscious enough to be construed as hypocrisy: the ritual of the lottery appears to be so naturalized that the villagers can't think rationally or critically about what they are doing.

    It is only we, as outsiders, who can really confront the madness of this ritual. In fact, it's the earnestness of the villagers that's so particularly frightening. They really seem to have conviction that, because they all drew for it, they have the right to murder a member of their community. (For more on this deeply, profoundly disturbing point, check out our "Character Analysis" of the Delacroix Family.)

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Do you think the characters in "The Lottery" are hypocritical in their relationships with other people in the town? Why are they willing to turn on their friends and relatives because of a lottery drawing?
    2. What do the different characters in "The Lottery" seem to feel that it the lottery is for? What purpose does it have in the village now? What might it once have accomplished?
    3. Which characters seem to enjoy the lottery the most? What characteristics do they share? How do they differ from one another?

    Chew on This

    These characters are too blinded by tradition to see that violence against their neighbors is a betrayal of their emotional bonds.

    The purpose of the lottery is now less important than its rote maintenance.

  • Family

    "The Lottery" plays around with the concept of family in interesting ways. The thing is, each person in the lottery must draw by household, so this is the moment, each year, when belonging to a given family has the most socially recognized significance. In the midst of this collective ritual, though, it's during the lottery that the emotional bonds that connect mother to child, husband to wife, and friend to friend, become completely insignificant.

    Once the lottery has ended, family bonds reassert their importance, and the families who have lost members mourn them. So Jackson is clearly drawing a line between the social place of families (with their male heads of households and unfair distribution of luck) and the emotional importance of family ties, which is a private matter.

    Questions About Family

    1. Does the lottery strengthen familial bonds or act as a destructive force?
    2. How does the Hutchinson family compare to other families in the village?
    3. Why does Bill Hutchinson tell his wife to be quiet when she protests his selection?

    Chew on This

    "The Lottery" distinguishes between family as an emotional bond and family (or the household) as a social bond.

    The household in "The Lottery" is a microcosm of the village's overall social organization, with women deferring to men, and children deferring to their parents.