How does the setting of "The Lottery" contribute to the difference between what we expect to occur and what really takes place?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Jackson's story caused an uproar when it was published in The New Yorker magazine in 1948, and part of the controversy was a result of the story's setting.

The story begins with a peaceful, pastoral New England village setting:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, and the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.  The people of the village began to gather in the square. . . .

This scene helps establish the reader's comfort and understanding with the characters and plot line of the story.  We are all familiar with such villages and the people who live in them, and there is nothing about the setting to alarm us.  We assume the village is one of hundreds of small American agricultural-based villages that one can find in a number of states, pleasant, family-centered, populated by "salt-of-the-earth" farmers.

This village is characterized by "square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program" and is guided by a "round-faced, jovial man who ran the coal business. . . ."  In other words, the setting is wholesome, purely American, a typical peaceful center of social life for a small group of farming people.  The setting itself sets the reader up for a whopping case of what psychologists and sociologists call "cognitive dissonance" or cognitive equilibrium," a condition in which the mind tries to reconcile the difference between what ought to be and what is--the difference between expectation and reality.

When we finally understand what the lottery is, the sacrifice of a member of the community for the continuation of the community,  we have a difficult time reconciling the idea of this village with the reality of this village.  When we realize that villagers, without any sense of remorse or regret, stone a woman, a mother and wife, to death with no sign of emotional difficulties, we realize that this village is not part of our world, despite the appearance of normality that pervades the story.  The jarring difference between our expectation and the reality we witness hits home like a hammer--in fact, we leave this story with an uneasy feeling that, despite the villagers' horrific ritual, such things might be possible under similar circumstances.  And the pastoral setting, where we expect only life-affirming elements, contributes to our unease.

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