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An Analysis of Shirley Jackson's Jaw-dropping Story 'The Lottery'

Neha B Deshpande May 4, 2019
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is one of the most controversial stories that evoked many strong comments. Much to the surprise of the readers, what starts in a setting of a typical day of gathering in a small town, turns out to be something horrifying.

Did You Know?

The story received a lot of negative responses due to its ghastly ending, with many readers sending negative mails to Jackson and The New Yorker, demanding an explanation about what the story actually meant. The story was banned in the Union of South Africa.
The Lottery is a short story by Shirley Jackson, that starts with an ordinary background, but ends horrifically. This story is also one of the classic horror stories that gave wide recognition to the author.
Set in 1948 against the background of the aftermath of World War II, this story explores the practices that are carried forward blindly without an afterthought of their repercussions. It also depicts how the society harms innocent victims in the name of tradition in the most ruthless manner.
The story has been adapted into a movie and a television series as well. It has been narrated through a third-person point of view. The narrator does not divulge into unnecessary details, and keeps the veil intact until the end of the story.
Also, the third-person perspective makes the narrator oblivious of the emotions of the villagers. It is narrated in a bland manner, and described as a routine incident, making it more spine-chilling for the reader. It also lays down the fact that the villagers are accustomed to this practice since long.

Summary of the Story

Setting: Set in the backdrop of a simple American village, it is revealed that today is the day of the lottery. The villagers start gathering slowly, and it sounds like a friendly gathering. The children have already gathered around, and have collected stones. However, the reason behind this is unknown to the readers.
The men and women are engaged in a friendly chit-chat. However, there are mild hints to tell the reader that there are signs of anxiety and tension. Women dressed in faded colors indicate that, though this is a gathering, there is no festival or celebration expected.
Everyone gathers around along with their families and their children. An air of tension is revealed to the readers. However, the reason behind it is still unknown. Mr. Summers has been entrusted the job of carrying out the lottery. He arrives with his black box that contains the chits.
Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson arrives late, and excuses herself for not recollecting today to be the day of the lottery. Mr. Summers reiterates the instructions, which is known to everyone: the first draw will be for choosing the family, and the second draw will be to choose the member of the family.
It turns out that Bill Hutchinson (Tessie's husband) has drawn the chit with the black mark. Meanwhile, Tessie starts her protests stating that the draw was unfair, and it should be done again. Everyone, including her husband, shuns her protests, and in the next draw his family is asked to draw a chit.
When it is Tessie who has drawn the chit with the black mark, everyone turns around her, much to the reader's surprise. What follows is an ugly human practice, and the village folks start pelting stones at her.

Literary Analysis

While building suspense, what starts out as an ordinary day, turns out to be something really dramatic. June 27 is a bright, cheerful, and a clear day. The children are collecting stones, they are in a particularly good mood, men and women have their daily chores, and share jokes.
The irony is that, the 'lottery' winner is not given some monetary compensation, but is a ritual of human sacrifice. The readers are not aware of the sudden twist that is in store for them, and hence, many of them find the story a bit difficult to gulp down.
As the story progresses, and Tessie retorts, the readers grow suspicious and sense something fishy. Though the author has given little hints to tell that this is not what it appears to be, the readers will certainly be taken aback when they read the abrupt twist in the tale.
The Black Box: The Black Box represents 'death'. It contains the fate of all the villagers, and the unfortunate one who gets the ticket with the black spot is the 'winner' of the lottery.
Though the box is worn out, revealing the wood, none of the villagers want to break the tradition, though Mr. Summers, the head, has appealed to get the box changed a number of times.
Also, the presence of the black box even before the birth of the oldest man in the town reveals that this practice is an age-old tradition, and no one has ever dared to stop it. It is even revealed that this is the 77th year of this lottery.
Blind Faith and Practices: There are also talks that some villages have stopped this lottery system. However, Mr Warner warns that it is not advisable to break the tradition. One such myth that is spoken is: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." Thus, it represents that such a practice is carried out on a belief that sacrifices bring about prosperity.
The Lottery: The title is most ironic, since a lottery represents a win. However, here, the win is completely different, and the compensation is nothing but 'death'. Also, ironically, Mr. Adams, who was discussing how other villages have given up the lottery, is ahead once Tessie is declared to be the chosen one.
On the other hand, Mrs. Dunbar does not seem to be wishing to participate in this inhumane act, and hence, makes an excuse out of it.
Mob Mentality: Once the lottery results are known, the others, without hesitation, simply follow suit. They start pelting stones in the most inhumane manner, citing that a sacrifice is necessary for the growth of their society.
Once they know that they're not at the receiving end, everyone rolls up their sleeves to stone Tessie to death. Sadly, even children were encouraged to engage themselves into collecting stones and throwing them on the victim. Thus, this ensures that they pass on such a bizarre ritual to the future generation too.
Innocence Killed: Involving everyone including children shows that everyone is at equal risk at the lottery. However, once Tessie is declared to be the 'chosen one', her ties with her family and friends are immediately severed. Her yells fall on deaf ears, and all that everyone wants to do is to stone her down.
This symbolizes the cruel practices that encourages killing of an individual, despite him/her being innocent. Tessie has done nothing wrong. However, she is sadly the drawer of the lottery, and hence, is punished.
Though Tessie protests that the draw has been unfair, no one listens to her, and finish off the 'task' in the most cold-blooded manner. Thus, along with killing innocent victims, subjecting children to such practices also kills their innocence.
Such deep-rooted blind faiths and rituals have been an integral part of many cultures in history. Though human sacrifices are illegal, sadly, there are some places that still believe and practice them.
This story, though heavily criticized, remains one of the most studied stories of Shirley Jackson. The deadly feeling that lingers after you read the story certainly proves that it has a strong impact on the minds of the readers.