The events of “The Lottery” border on the absurd. Nevertheless, the story cries out for interpretation on several levels. Shirley Jackson has skillfully used the elements of several ancient rituals to create a tale that touches on the character of ritual itself and the devastating effects of mob psychology.
At the heart of the story is one of the oldest concepts of humankind: the notion of the scapegoat. Ancient civilizations often conducted a ceremony in which the evils of an entire society were symbolically transferred to one member of the group, either human or animal, and that member was killed or banished. This death or banishment suggested that the evils of the past had been expurgated, allowing for a better future for the group. The Jewish people in Old Testament times conducted the ritual by designating a goat as the recipient of all sins and evil, then turning the goat out into the desert; hence, in Western literature, the term “scapegoat” has been widely adopted to designate this sacrificial victim.
Tessie Hutchinson is the scapegoat in her town in the year in which “The Lottery” takes place; the implication in the story is that the lottery is an annual event. In this town, the scapegoat is used to banish the evils of the society so that the crops will flourish. Thus, two ancient rituals are combined: the notion of banishing evils via a sacrificial victim, and the idea of appeasing higher powers in some way to ensure fertility for the land. Fertility rituals, too, usually involved some kind of sacrifice.
The people of the town are caught up in the ritual to such an extent that they have given up any sense of logic. Mob psychology rules their actions. Though they appear to be sane, sensible individuals, when the time of the lottery comes, they abandon their rational nature and revert to the instincts of the herd. This psychological phenomenon is characteristic of humans throughout history. Although Jackson portrays it in its extreme form in this story, the idea that men and women in groups are willing to forgo personal responsibility and act with great cruelty toward others is evidenced in actions such as lynch mobs, racial confrontations, and similar incidents. The willingness of people to act irrationally as members of the herd displays aspects that, while unpleasant, are still integral parts of their nature that they must recognize if they are to keep them in check.