Explain the use of irony in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and how it helps to develop the story
Situational irony is used throughout the story, beginning with the story's title. The idea of a lottery conjures up ideas of rewards and prizes, certainly not stoning. The ending, though, thoroughly foreshadowed, comes as a shocking and ironic surprise.
The fact that Mrs. Hutchinson can treat the lottery so lightly contributes to the irony of the story. She comes late to the lottery because she forgot all about it. She is fully accepting of this barbaric tradition until she is the one chosen to be stoned. When she is chosen, she begins to yell that the process is unfair. So, for her the lottery is also ironic. Something that she thought unimportant becomes fatal for her.
Also contributing to the irony and horror of the lottery is the way it is conducted. A brutal murder is conducted, but it is part of an annual ritual that is done by law-abiding citizens and their families. The setting is a small town in the USA and the gathering seems to more like that of a July 4th celebration than a sacrificial stoning.
The central irony in Jackson's "The Lottery" is that normal people are capable of great brutality when that brutality is sanctioned by the majority or by society.
The irony is developed through the use of point of view, setting, character behavior, and foreshadowing.
The limited point of view reveals only what appear to be everyday, normal details. The village appears normal (school has recently let out, the kids think of school, people are in a hurry to get to lunch, they gather for a summer festival of some kind), and no thoughts are revealed. Thoughts, of course, would give away the surprise ending.
Foreshadowing makes the surprise ending make sense, once it occurs. The boys gathering stones, for instance, seems harmless at the time, but gives the ending legitimacy.
The irony only becomes apparent when the nature of the lottery is revealed, though. Thus, it isn't that irony develops the story, but that the story reveals the irony. In some works, the irony does develop the story. In this case, however, the irony is revealed at the conclusion of the story.
I would say that Jackson's style is part of the irony in the short story. She plays on the traditional notion of revering traditional village life. She plays on the idea that this form of life is a communion with nature, completely bucolic, and a setting where all that is good and right emerges. She plays on this through her language, style, and word choice. It is no accident that the day is a sunny June day, one where the splendor of the natural setting helps to set the mind of the reader at ease. Yet, undercutting this is the interplay between the characters, the nonverbal communication, and the anxiety that this setting is going to be the backdrop for something bad. Even the villagers themselves represent a sense of something different than the reality presented. They embrace, willingly, this village tradition, yet are completely cognizant of the fact that this is a fairly horrific and brutal tradition that undermines the civility and natural beauty of the setting. I find this contrast something ironic, and something that speaks to the value of Jackson's work.