"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.
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 the terms of actual experience in which the story has otherwise dealt. It is as if ordinary life had suddenly ceased and were replaced, without warning, without break, and without change of scene, by some horrifying nightmare. Hence the shock, which the author has very carefully worked up to. Note how the shock is enhanced by the deadpan narrative style, which in no way suggests that anything unusual is going on.
In one sense the author has prepared for the ending. A few slight notes of nervousness, the talk about giving up the tradition, and the emotional outburst by Mrs. Hutchinson all suggest some not entirely happy outcome. Still more important in building up an unusually strong sense of...
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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...
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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,...
(The entire section is 1628 words.)
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 1929 words.)
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 1679 words.)