“The Lottery” opens on an early summer morning in a small, unnamed town, and the idea of a lottery is introduced almost immediately. At ten o’clock in the morning, the townspeople start to gather in the town square for the lottery: first the children, who begin stacking stones in a corner, then the men, and then the women. Mr. Summers, the conductor of the lottery, arrives with “the black wooden box,” accompanied by Mr. Graves, the postmaster. He asks for some help in setting up the box on a stool, and after some hesitation a man and his son volunteer. Mr. Summers eventually declares the lottery open, is sworn in by the postmaster, and begins to speak to the crowd; as he finishes talking, Mrs. Hutchinson arrives late to the gathering and remarks to her friend, Mrs. Delacroix, that she forgot the date. She joins her husband and children just before the lottery officially starts.
There are only two abnormalities: a wife is drawing for her husband, who has broken his leg, and a son is drawing for his mother and family for the first time. After these abnormalities are cleared up, the drawing begins. One by one, in alphabetical order, the men of the village (with a few exceptions) come up and draw a piece of paper from the black wooden box. At the same time, they all open their papers; one of them—in this case Mr. Hutchinson’s—has a black circle, indicating that the chooser has been selected. Mrs. Hutchinson protests that her husband wasn’t given enough time to choose a paper, but they continue anyway. Each member of the Hutchinson family selects a second piece of paper, and this time Mrs. Hutchinson selects the black circle. The crowd begins picking up stones. As Mrs. Hutchinson protests, they stone her to death.
What makes it interesting?
- Contrast of plot and setting
“The Lottery” is set in a village that is, in many way, normal. It is small and old-fashioned, all of the characters seem to know each other (even minor characters are named for the reader), and they treat the whole situation as very normal, which obviously contrasts with the reader’s view of it. Space villages in general have a friendly feel, which furthers the contrast.
- Themes of tradition/conformity
Throughout the story there are clear signs that the lottery is a long-standing tradition. From the beginning, the story treats the lottery like a common occurrence and reads almost like the reader, too, should know what the lottery is. The element of tradition becomes most apparent with the arrival of the black wooden box, which is “no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained”— but no-one wants to replace it, because “no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.” Also revealing is the exchange between Mr. Adams, Old Man Warner, and Mrs. Adams about villages that have stopped the lottery: Old Man Warner becomes the voice of tradition, condemning those who end the lottery practice as “crazy fools,” arguing that “there’s always been a lottery,” and even hinting at the lottery’s original purpose: “’Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’” He also associates the lottery with human advancement and civilization: “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves.”
The elements of conformity are most clear in the townspeople’s ignorance of some aspects of the lottery: its “original paraphernalia” had been lost long ago; “so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded”; but “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.” The lottery is tradition for tradition’s sake, rather than any real purpose. This concept could be part of Jackson’s purpose in writing the short story: she could be warning of the dangers of tradition for tradition’s sake, and/or reasonless/extreme violence.
- Themes of violence
The responses of the children and the adults to the lottery provide two different, but connected, views on violence. The children gathering stones at the beginning of the story become especially chilling one the reader knows the context; so does “little Dave” selected a paper of his own and laughing as he does so. The younger children seem unaware of the serious nature of the lottery, instead treating it like a game (as children would), which is paralleled in their exclusion from the lottery until their family is selected. In contrast, we have older children like Jack Watson who seem more aware and/or knowledge about what is taking place and thus treat it with more fear.
One of the most chilling and most important parts of “The Lottery” is how easily the villagers turn to violence. The children are a part of this, but we spend more time with the adults, and it’s therefore easier to see it with them. Even while the lottery is taking place, the villagers are talking and laughing and generally being friendly with each other. Mrs. Hutchinson and Mrs. Delacroix speak at friends when Mrs. Hutchinson comes in late; the crowd parts for her; Mr. Summers even jokes good-naturedly about her late arrival. This all contrasts sharply with their attitudes towards Mrs. Hutchinson (and her family in general) once they are selected.
- Historical context
“The Lottery” was written in 1948, a year after the beginning of the Cold War, three years after the end of WWII, and a year into the second Red Scare. Any of these historic events could have prompted her to write the story, or shed some light on the context.
What can we imitate/steal?
The main object of foreshadowing in “The Lottery” is the pile of stones that the children collect in the second paragraph. During a first read of the story, the boys’ action of gathering stones is odd but not entirely out of place, as children are strange and have a large variety of games that don’t make sense. But by the time the reader reaches the final few paragraphs, the purpose of the stones becomes clear, and the tone of the boys’ action shifts— threatening rather than childish.
In contrast to the children, the adults are more aware of the severity of what is to come, but their actions too provide some foreshadowing: “their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed.” Mrs. Hutchinson in particular provides some foreshadowing when “she tapped Mrs. Delacroix on the arm as a farewell,” despite not knowing of her eventual fate. Old Man Warner’s mention of a “pack of crazy fools,” though not directed at the villagers, parallels what the town looks like to an outside source during the lottery.
There are elements of tension snuck in throughout the story, and most double as foreshadowing. “The villagers kept their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool”; characters speak “soberly,” “regretfully,” and “gravely”; they move “nervously” and “hastily”; and there are “sudden hushes” and “breathless pauses.” The reader is not aware of the exact nature of the lottery until the village is actually attacking Mrs. Hutchinson, but all of the villagers do, so their apprehension makes the reader much more tense than if we had known what was going on.
This is a little more obvious: Jackson uses surnames like Summers (aka the season), Delacroix (of the cross), Martin (from Mars, the Roman god of war), and Graves (self-explanatory) for her characters. These names can provide characterization, contrast, and foreshadowing all at once: Summers’ sunny surname fits his initially genial personality, but contrasts with his duty; Mrs. Graves is at the front of the crowd when they stone Mrs. Hutchinson; and Mrs. Delacroix, despite being friendly with Mrs. Hutchinson, “selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands.”