"The Lottery" was published in 1948. In the opening paragraph, the narrator describes a scene that has all the appearances of a simple town meeting. In this opening paragraph, there is nothing threatening and the idea of a "lottery" to readers in 1948 and today would indicate some sort of contest in which someone or some people might win money.
In the second paragraph, the narrator notes that the children were there first. Their new liberty of summer vacation "sat easily" upon them. This seems odd, but it could be interpreted as a simple transition from school to vacation. The piles of stones seem odd, but up to this point there is nothing to suggest anything sinister about them.
"The lottery was conducted--as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program--by Mr. Summers." The lottery is bunched in with these other social functions. So, it logically follows that it is probably a social function as well. Given that it occurs around the summer solstice, it could be a town celebration involving a lottery. The tension rises when people begin drawing from the box, but this could be understood as the tension experienced in hopes of "winning" the lottery.
So, the story begins with a sunny day and a picnic-type of atmosphere but it ends with a ritualized murder. In hindsight, the reader can go back and see subtle clues that foreshadow the tragedy. But these are subtle. This is how Jackson fools the reader. She never provides too much information that gives away the ending, the real meaning of the lottery. Upon first reading the story, everything (even the stones and the black box) simply seems like odd parts of some tradition. In addition to the shocking ending, the story suggests a more critical look at tradition and ritual in general.
In “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson tricks the reader into believing the lottery is a positive experience that takes place each year in a small New England town. The connotation is that of a festive day in the community commencing with a game of chance in which all of the town’s inhabitants participate. The reader learns about the custom of the lottery from the elder town members who lament that some of the surrounding towns have given up the tradition of the lottery. In some ways, the citizens connect the lottery to the success of their crops. There is little to foreshadow the ending of the story except for the nervousness of some of the townsfolk, which can be mistaken for nervous anticipation for the drawing to take place. When the person who chooses the slip of paper with the dark spot on it starts protesting that the lottery was not undertaken in a fair manner, the reader begins to realize that the prize is not coveted. When the lottery winner is stoned to death, the reader is dismayed.