The publication of “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in June of 1948 created a scandal. Many readers canceled their subscriptions to the venerable magazine, and others wrote threatening letters to its author, Shirley Jackson. Later generations were puzzled by this controversy. The sources for the furor and scandal can be found in the structure of the story and its themes, in the mood of Americans in the late 1940’s, in the prejudices held by the reading public against certain literary genres, in the venue in which the story appeared, and in Jackson’s persona.
“The Lottery” presents a prototypal example of the surprise ending. Many writers, including Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, Saki, and H. H. Munro, made this sort of plot twist a hallmark of their craft. A decade later, two long-running television series, The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, regularly employed this device as well. Surprise endings often lead to reader delight, but not so with Jackson’s macabre story of human sacrifice. Jackson provides subtle hints in the story that something grim is in the offing—for example, the gathering of stones and rocks, the crowd’s sense of nervousness as the lottery proceeds, and Tessie’s alarm when her family “wins” the initial phase of the contest. Also, the lottery is held at the end of June, near the summer solstice, a time of year that features prominently in agricultural festivals throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Nevertheless, the characters seem so wholesome, so stereotypically small-town American, that it is easy for the reader to overlook the clues that Jackson provides. Such subtlety is a hallmark of Jackson’s craft, one to which horror novelist Stephen King made reference in the dedication to his 1980 novel Firestarter: “In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never needed to raise her voice.” In this dedication, King lists four of Jackson’s most celebrated works, one of which is “The Lottery” and the other is Jackson’s best-known work of long fiction, The Haunting of Hill House. This novel, too, begins in June and ends with a similar, though symbolic, sacrifice.
The surprise ending to “The Lottery” also reveals Jackson’s dark themes, including the warping effect on society of mindless tradition. Old Man Warner, the embodiment of rigid tradition, seems to believe that the sacrifice is necessary to ensure sufficient food for the village, but the other villagers are maintaining the practice out of habit and sheer inertia. They have forgotten why they are doing the ritual and have let it become a corrupt, atrophied shade of its earlier form; still, they insist on keeping the lottery because it has always been done. Simply out of tradition, they unquestioningly stone to death a neighbor whom they were laughing and joking with minutes earlier.
An even more pessimistic theme of the story is its interrogation of altruism and humanitarianism. No one in the village shows any concern for justice and kindness except Tessie—and she, too, starts to complain about the lottery only when she realizes that it is going to directly affect her own family. In short, Jackson suggests that people are not concerned about injustice and kindness unless these problems touch them personally.
The story’s surprise ending and its unflattering depiction of human nature must have been especially unsettling to readers in the late 1940’s, when Americans were especially proud of the role they had played in defeating the Nazis in World War II. Having recently vanquished a cruel and inhumane enemy, perhaps Americans were not ready for a story that implied that they themselves could be cruel and inhumane. Jackson hints that these characteristics are woven into the fabric of the United States by giving her characters names that were prominent in the nation’s early years (for example, Adams and Hutchinson). The names Summers, Graves, and Delacroix—literally “of the cross”—reflect other themes and motifs implicit in the story, such as, respectively, agrarian tradition, death, and sacrifice.
Furthermore, a surprise ending involving human sacrifice placed “The Lottery” in the genre of horror fiction, a type of writing dismissed as unsophisticated and sensationalistic and, therefore, fodder for cheap pulp magazines. The New Yorker had been the most prestigious venue for short fiction in the mid-twentieth century, and its subscribers must have felt duped into reading what they thought was “trashy” writing.
Adding to the reading public’s angry response to “The Lottery” was Jackson’s public persona. In 1948, she was known as a writer of humorous articles and short stories detailing her experiences as a housewife and mother of four children. Few if any readers would have expected from her a harrowing depiction of blind tradition and merciless selfishness, like that revealed in “The Lottery.”