Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is about a small town holding its annual lottery. The story begins describing the day of the lottery, June 27th, as the people gathered in the square. The children begin to make piles of stones while the men quietly joke. The women gossip with each other before moving to be with their husbands. Mr. Summers, the conductor of the lottery, arrives in the square carrying a black wooden box which holds the pieces of paper for the people to choose from. The box had been used for the lottery even before the oldest man in town was born, but they replaced the wooden chips for pieces of paper once the population outgrew three hundred. Before the lottery begins, Mr. Summers has to write out the lists of the heads of families that would first pick from the box. Some people in the town recalled some sort of ceremony in the past, but now the person called just walks to the box and picks a slip. Just as the lottery begins, Mrs. Hutchinson arrives, claiming that she completely forgot what day it was. Mr. Summers calls out the family names in chronological order, and the husband of each family gets up to get a slip. During this time, Mr. Adams mentions that some towns abandoned holding the lottery to Old Man Warner. Warner replies that young people are too choosy and lazy, and that there’s always been a lottery. Once Mr. Summers finishes, the people open their slips of paper and Mr. Hutchinson gets picked. Mrs. Hutchinson argues that he didn’t get enough time to choose, but the ritual continues. Mrs. Hutchinson, Mr. Hutchinson, and their three children each pick a slip of paper from the box. Once it’s revealed that Mrs. Hutchinson chose the slip with a black dot in the middle, the people begin to stone her to death.
The chronic tension is the lottery itself, and the acute tension is the lottery in the specific year taking place in the story.
The use of foreshadowing in “The Lottery” makes the story compelling to read because the true nature of the lottery isn’t revealed until the last few scenes of the story. For the first three (ish) pages, there’s no foreshadowing aside from this curious section on the first page:
Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix – the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy” – eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.
This foreshadowing is clever because so far, we only know that a lottery will take place at some point, so we may assume that the kids gathering stones are just playing around. However, the word “already” hints that Bobby is preparing for something later on, but this is subtle enough for us to overlook on the first read. The interjection about the villagers pronouncing Delacroix as “Dellacroy” is enough to distract the reader from what’s relevant to the story’s eventual climax. The foreshadowing of the lottery’s outcome becomes more dense as the story progresses, but even these sections are too vague to pinpoint what may actually happen:
“Right.” Mr. Summers said. He made a note on the list he was holding. Then he asked, “Watson boy drawing this year?”
A tall boy in the crowd raised his hand. “Here,” he said. “I’m drawing for my mother and me.” He blinked his eyes nervously and ducked his head as several voices in the crowd said things like “Good fellow, lack.” and “Glad to see your mothers got a man to do it.”
From this quote, we can tell that the boy is anxious to be in the lottery, and that the townsfolk are proud of him for stepping up to replace his mother. We’re starting to get the idea that the lottery in Jackson’s world isn’t the same as the lottery in reality, but this isn’t enough to infer that the winner of the lottery gets killed. I’ll say now that I know the point of foreshadowing isn’t to completely reveal the climax of a story; that would ruin this story. I mean to highlight Jackson’s foreshadowing as incredibly vague and understated, which makes the story more compelling because we’re unsure what happens to the person that wins the lottery, although we know it probably isn’t something good. Tessie’s reaction to her husband getting picked furthers this, and it makes the story even more enthralling.
The final bit of foreshadowing reveals the most about the lottery’s outcome:
“All right,” Mr. Summers said. “Open the papers. Harry, you open little Dave’s.”
Mr. Graves opened the slip of paper and there was a general sigh through the crowd as he held it up and everyone could see that it was blank. Nancy and Bill Jr. opened theirs at the same time, and both beamed and laughed, turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads.
This shows that the winner of the lottery will ultimately be Tessie or Bill (Or Harburt?), and it shows that the author isn’t cruel enough to write about a little kid getting stoned. Neither are the townsfolk; the “general sigh” reveals that they aren’t heartless monsters. However, it also reveals they would’ve stoned Dave if he had been picked. But we don’t realize this yet because we haven’t seen what happens to Tessie – we’ve only realized the lottery results in something really bad. We could also use this section to infer that Tessie was late to the lottery because she didn’t want to go.
The pacing of “The Lottery” is another technique that aids in the story’s mystery. Here, I highlighted how much of the story wasn’t foreshadowing – rather, I highlighted the parts of the story that distracted the reader from the main plot:
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before old man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.
This section in the story comes after Mr. Summers’s arrival and before Mrs. Hutchinson’s arrival. Although it could be considered exposition, I think of it as an interruption. The history of the black box has no real importance to the plot, and it seems like something that an editor would advise to cut completely in order to not distract the reader. However, this long section of unnecessary information helps the climax of the story startle and frighten the reader more than if Jackson had stuck with the immediate plot structure. It prolongs the story to make the outcome more sudden.
Another example of good pacing is when the family that won the lottery is revealed:
After that, there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers, holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill.” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
Up until this point, the story’s progression was slow. The name-calling section takes a long time to have the same impact as the bouts of information – to create an unanticipated outcome. But at this moment, the urgent lines of dialogue help heighten the tension in the story before the outcome is reached. The characters’ dialogue had been polite or teasing discussion previously in the story to distract from what was about to happen. At this point that politeness is breached by anxiousness, and the quick pacing of the dialogue allows this.
In my own writing, I would like to imitate Jackson’s use of foreshadowing to subtly reveal more about the outcome as the plot continues. Also, her pacing helps set the tone of each section, and I would like to pace my stories the same way so I can give a clear depiction of what the scene is like. The writing exercise is to write a plot with a sharp, unexpected turn at the end and figure out how to foreshadow this turn in earlier sections of the story.
- Did you think any of the long paragraphs of information (the one about the black box, about the lottery’s history, etc.) were necessary to the main plot?
- “The Lottery” is the kind of story that is most impactful on the first read. What makes readers return to this story even though they know the outcome?
- Shirley Jackson’s story was very controversial when it was first published in 1948. Why do you think it was controversial?
- I feel like Suzanne Collins sort of ripped this story off when she wrote The Hunger Games. What do you think?