The Lottery Jackson, Shirley
"The Lottery" Shirley Jackson
The following entry presents criticism on Jackson's short story "The Lottery" (1948). See also Shirley Jackson Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Jackson's fiction is noted for exploring incongruities in everyday life, and "The Lottery," perhaps her most exemplary work in this respect, examines humanity's capacity for evil within a contemporary, familiar, American setting. Noting that the story's characters, physical environment, and even its climactic action lack significant individuating detail, most critics view "The Lottery" as a modern-day parable or fable which obliquely addresses a variety of themes, including the dark side of human nature, the danger of ritualized behavior, and the potential for cruelty when the individual submits to the mass will.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Lottery" concerns an annual summer drawing held in a small unnamed American town. As the townspeople gather and wait for the ceremony to begin, some calmly piling stones together, they discuss everyday matters of work and family, behaving in ways that suggest the ordinariness of their lives and of the impending event. Tessie Hutchinson, arriving late, talks with her friend, Mrs. Delacroix, about the household chores that almost made her miss the lottery. Although everyone appears to agree that the annual lottery is important, no one seems to know when it began or what its original purpose was. As Mr. Summers reads off an alphabetical list of names, the heads of each household come forward to select a folded slip of paper from an old black wooden box. Bill Hutchinson draws the paper with the black mark on it, and people immediately begin speculating about which Hutchinson will actually "win" the drawing. Each member of Bill's family then draws a slip from the box. Tessie selects the paper with the black mark on it, and she vigorously protests the unfairness of the drawing. The townspeople refuse to listen to her, and as the story ends they begin to pelt her with the stones they have gathered.
The principal themes of "The Lottery" rely on the incongruous union of decency and evil in human nature. Citing James G. Frazer's anthropological study of primitive societies, The Golden Bough (1890), many critics observe that the story reflects humankind's ancient need for a scapegoat, a figure upon which it can project its most undesirable qualities, and which can be destroyed in a ritually absolving sacrifice. Unlike primitive peoples, however, the townspeople in "The Lottery"—insofar as they repre-sent contemporary Western society—should possess social, religious, and moral prohibitions against annual lethal stonings. Commentators variously argue that it is the very ritualization that makes the murder palatable to otherwise decent people; the ritual, and fulfilling its tradition, justifies and masks the brutality. As a modern parable on the dualism of human nature, "The Lottery" has been read as addressing such issues as the public's fascination with salacious and scandalizing journalism, McCarthyism, and the complicity of the general public in the victimization of minority groups, epitomized by the Holocaust of World War II.
"The Lottery" was first published in The New Yorker magazine on 26 June 1948, and it generated hundreds of letters from readers, the vast majority of whom were confused as to the story's meaning. According to Lenemaja Friedman, three "main characteristics dominated the letters: bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse." Since then, critical reception has generally been very favorable, and "The Lottery" has been anthologized many times. Those critics who read the story as a traditional narrative tend to fault its surprise ending and lack of character development as unrealistic, unbelievable, and making reader identification difficult. Other commentators, however, view "The Lottery" as a modern-day parable; they argue that the elements of the story often disparaged by its critics are actually consistent with the style and structure of New Testament parables and to stories from the Old Testament. Generally, critics agree only that the story's meaning cannot be determined with exactitude. While most critics concede that it was Jackson's intention to avoid specific meaning, some cite flatly drawn characters, unrevealing dialogue, and the shocking ending as evidence of literary infertility. The majority of commentators, though, argue that the story's art lies in its provocativeness and that with its parable-like structure Jackson is able to address a variety of timeless issues with contemporary resonance, and thereby stir her readers to reflective thought and debate.
∗The Road through the Wall (novel) 1948
The Lottery; or The Adventures of James Harris (short stories) 1949
Hangsaman (novel) 1951
Life among the Savages (nonfiction) 1953
†The Bird's Nest (novel) 1954
Witchcraft of Salem Village (juvenile fiction) 1956
Raising Demons (nonfiction) 1957
The Sundial (novel) 1958
The Bad Children: A Play in One Act for Bad Children (drama) 1959
‡The Haunting of Hill House (novel) 1959
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (novel) 1962
§The Magic of Jackson (short stories and novels) 1966
§Come along with Me: Part of a Novel, Sixteen Stories, and Three Lectures (short stories, novel, and lectures) 1968
∗This work was published as The Other Side of the Street in 1956.
†This work was published as Lizzie in 1957.
‡This novel served as the basis for the film The Haunting (1963), written by Nelson Gidding and directed by Robert Wise.
§These works were edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman.
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SOURCE: "Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery': Comment," in Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology, edited by Robert B. Heilman, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1950, pp. 384-85.
[Heilman is an English professor and the author of several works on drama, comedy, and the humanities. In the following essay on "The Lottery," Heilman discusses how Jackson's shift "from a realistic to a symbolic technique" intensifies the shock value of the story's ending.]
Miss Jackson's story ["The Lottery"] is remarkable for the tremendous shock produced by the ending. Let us ignore the problem of meaning for the moment and see how the shock is created. In general, the method is quite easily recognized. Up to the last six paragraphs the story is written in the manner of a realistic transcript of small-town experience: the day is a special one, true, but the occasion is familiar, and for the most part the people are presented as going through a well-known routine. We see them as decent, friendly, neighborly people; in fact, most of the details could be used just as they are in a conventional picture of idyllic small-town life. Things are easily, simply told, as if in a factual chronicle (note the use of date and hour). Suddenly, in the midst of this ordinary, matter-of-fact environment, there occurs a terrifyingly cruel action, official, accepted, yet for the reader mysterious and unexplained. It is entirely out of line with all...
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SOURCE: "Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" in The Explicator, Vol. XII, No. 5, March, 1954, p. 34.
[In the following essay, Lainhoff comments on the scapegoat theme in "The Lottery."]
Shirley Jackson's provocative "The Lottery" is a story in which anthropology provides the chief symbol. Frazer's The Scapegoat (The Golden Bough, Part VI, 3rd ed., 1913) makes it clear that the lottery is Miss Jackson's modern representation of the primitive annual scapegoat rite. The story imagines that, in some typical American community, the rite still flourishes.
The story begins on the morning of June 27. (Frazer: the rite often occurred at the time of the summer solstice.) The first to gather at the square where the lottery is to be held are the children. School recently over, they take to their new liberty uneasily, gathering together quietly at first before breaking into boisterous play, their talk "still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands." (Frazer: the rite was commonly preceded or followed by a period of general license, during which ordinary restraints were thrown aside and offenses went unpunished.)
The scapegoat rite had a double purpose: to exorcise the evils of the old year by transferring them to some inanimate or animate objects, and with that "solemn and public banishment of evil spirits" [The Golden Bough] to appease the forces of the new...
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SOURCE: "Shirley Jackson: 'The Lottery,'" in Understanding Fiction, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, second edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959, pp. 72-6.
[Brooks was one of the most influential of the "New Critics"; he espoused a critical method characterized by a close reading of texts in which an individual work is evaluated solely on the basis of its internal components. Warren was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All the King's Men (1947), Promises: Poems, 1954–1956 (1957), and Now and Then: Poems, 1976–1978 (1979). In the following essay, they examine Jackson's intentions in "The Lottery," contending that it is meant to be a parable whose "fictional form actually gives point and definition to social commentary."]
The plot [of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"] is so simple that to some readers it may seem to lack sufficient complication to be interesting. The story seems to do no more than recount the drawing of lots to determine which citizen of the village shall be stoned to death. There is no conflict—at least of the kind that occurs between tangible forces—no decision to be arrived at, no choice between two goods or two evils. There is no development of plot through human struggle and effort: the issue of life and death turns upon pure chance. The suspense secured is the simplest kind possible: which unlucky person will chance determine to be...
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SOURCE: "On the Morning of June 28, 1948, and 'The Lottery,'" in The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Story Fiction, edited by Ann Charters, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 1192-95.
[In the following edited version of a lecture on "The Lottery" that Jackson originally delivered in 1960 and published in Come Along with Me in 1968, she discusses public reaction to the story.]
On the morning of June 28, 1948, I walked down to the post office in our little Vermont town to pick up the mail. I was quite casual about it, as I recall—I opened the box, took out a couple of bills and a letter or two, talked to the postmaster for a few minutes, and left, never supposing that it was the last time for months that I was to pick up the mail without an active feeling of panic. By the next week I had had to change my mailbox to the largest one in the post office, and casual conversation with the postmaster was out of the question, because he wasn't speaking to me. June 28, 1948, was the day The New Yorker came out with a story of mine in it. It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.
I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning when summer seemed to have come at last, with blue skies and warm sun...
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SOURCE: "'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force," in American Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1, March, 1974, pp. 100-07.
[In the following essay, Nebeker discusses the underlying themes in "The Lottery," focusing on the religious symbolism and anthropological elements of the story.]
Numerous critics have carefully discussed Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in terms of the scapegoat traditions of anthropology and literature, pointing out its obvious comment on the innate savagery of man lurking beneath his civilized trappings. Most acknowledge the power of the story, admitting that the psychological shock of the ritual murder in an atmosphere of modern, small-town normality cannot be easily forgotten. Nevertheless, beneath the praise of these critics frequently runs a current of uneasiness, a sense of having been defrauded in some way by the development of the story as a whole.
Virgil Scott [in Studies in Short Story, 1968], for example, writes that "… the story leaves one uneasy because of the author's use of incidental symbolism … the black box, the forgotten tuneless chant, the ritual salute—indeed the entire reconstruction of the mechanics of the lottery—fail to serve the story as they might have." Robert Heilman [in Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology, 1959] discovers similar technical difficulties. While approving the "deadpan narrative style" which screens us...
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SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in Shirley Jackson, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 44-77.
[Friedman is an English professor and critic. In the following excerpt, she briefly discusses the publication history of "The Lottery" and examines the story's theme of social evil.]
One of the ancient practices that modern man deplores as inhumanly evil is the annual sacrifice of a scapegoat or a god-figure for the benefit of the community. Throughout the ages, from ancient Rome and Greece to the more recent occurrences in African countries, sacrifices in the name of a god of vegetation were usual and necessary, the natives felt, for a fertile crop. Somewhere along the way, the sacrifice of a human for the sins of the people—to drive evil from themselves—became linked with the ritual of the vegetation god. In Mexico, among the Aztecs, the victims impersonated the particular gods for a one-year period before being put to death; death came then by the thrust of a knife into the breast and the immediate extraction of the heart. In Athens, each year in May, at the festival of the Thargelia, two victims, a man and a woman, were led out of the city and stoned to death. Death by stoning was one of the accepted and more popular methods of dispatching ceremonial victims.
But modern man considers such practices barbaric and, therefore, alien to his civilized behavior. For this reason, many persons were...
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SOURCE: "A Folkloristic Look at Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" in Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, December, 1980, pp. 119-24.
[In the following essay, Allen analyzes the elements of folklore and ritual in "The Lottery," contending that Jackson successfully uses them to reveal various kinds of social behavior.]
Most studies of folklore in literature fall into one of two categories. Either they are concerned with identifying specific items of folklore in works of literature, or they attempt to interpret the use of folklore as integral to the meaning of particular literary creations. Historically, folklore-in-literature research has been oriented more toward identification than interpretation; as a result, the preponderance of studies of folklore in specific literary works has focused on the stylistic uses of folklore to set a mood, to delineate a character, or to provide "local color." In spite of repeated pleas for scholars to go beyond the identification of folklore in literature to the interpretation of its use and meaning, relatively little research has been undertaken on the structural or functional use of folklore as thematic content or integral plot elements…. Furthermore, folklorists offering interpretive analyses of folklore in literature have, by and large, followed standard models of literary exegesis. That is, they have not brought their specialized training to bear...
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SOURCE: "An Old Testament Analogue for 'The Lottery,'" in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, March, 1984, pp. 193-95.
[In the following essay, Gibson identifies the similarities between the biblical story of Joshua 7:10-26 and "The Lottery," contending that while the biblical story emphasizes the supernatural triumph of good over evil, Jackson's story reveals a "chillingly impersonal world of gray amorality."]
More than any other short story by Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery" has intrigued critics and provoked puzzled guesses about its enigmatic meaning. Seymour Lainoff early on invoked the "primitive annual scapegoat rite" discussed in Frazer's The Golden Bough, and Lenemaja Friedman [in her Shirley Jackson, 1975] more recently has compared the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson to the festival of the Thargelia in ancient Athens and to similar scapegoat rituals of the Aztecs in Mexico. Shyamal Bagchee [in his "Design of Darkness in Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" in Notes on Contemporary Literature, IX, December, 1979] has discovered the symbolism of "black magic and primitive pagan rituals" that expose the "hideous primitive faces" lurking under our "civilized modern masks," and Helen Nebeker [in "'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force," American Literature, XLVI, 1974] has uncovered the triple symbolism of pagan ritual, Mosaic legalism, and Christian theology in the...
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Kosenko, Peter. "A Marxist/Feminist Reading of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery.'" New Orleans Review 12, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 27-32.
Investigates "The Lottery" from Marxist and feminist perspectives. This essay is included in CLC-60.
Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. "The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning and Context in 'The Lottery.'" Essays in Literature XV, No. 2 (Fall 1988): 259-65.
Examines the process of the lottery and argues that its "primary social consequence involves women turning over the control of their fertility to men." This excerpt is reprinted in CLC-60.
Williams, Richard H. "A Critique of the Sampling Plan Used in Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery.'" Journal of Modern Literature 7, No. 3 (September 1979): 543-44.
Contends that there is "a flaw in the sampling plan used to select the victim" in "The Lottery." Williams also suggests "a more defensible plan."
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