In Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," violence is one of the story's themes. We find not only that the people in the story demonstrate a violent nature, but that it has been going on in this town for a very long time.
As the story begins, on a sunny morning at the end of June, we learn that the children have only recently been dismissed from school for the summer. They are playing with the wild abandon of kids freed from the restrictions of the classroom. The scene seems normal. Before the reader understands the intent of the gathering, we learn...
Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones...
In fact, with the patience and intent of youngsters, soon they have amassed an impressive pile of stones that they now defend against other marauding boys intent on taking their hoard.
One aspect of the story that shows the violent nature of people is the casual way they go about passing their time until the process—the lottery—begins. The men speak of everyday events with the casual air of men gathering anywhere, at any time: speaking of...
...planting and rain, tractors and taxes.
The only indication that this might be a gathering different from other days is that when they joke, they speak quietly and refrain from laughing. Knowing the end of the story, readers who consider themselves to be non-violent might well find this behavior repulsive: for how can people be so cool in preparing to take another person's life? And why aren't they fearful that any one of them might be chosen?
The women share gossip; they call their children to join them, who come reluctantly. And equally disturbing, the narrator notes...
The lottery was conducted—as were the square dances, the teenage clubs, the Halloween program—by Mr. Summers...
It is considered a "civic activity," but dances and clubs are hardly on the same level as death-by-lottery. When Tessie Hutchinson finally arrives, Mr. Summers wants to "get this over with so's we can go back to work." The grave contradiction here is the normalcy with which the town operates. Stoning takes place and it's "business as usual."
Bill chooses the black spot; Tessie starts to argue. Casually one neighbor calls, "Be a good sport, Tessie." Her husband straight out tells her to shut-up. At this point, they don't know who in the family will die. Tessie shows the vicious nature of people and their desire to survive at all costs, ready to give up her daughter's life to save her own (we assume), or perhaps her younger children. She yells:
There's Don and Eva...Make them take their chance!
Tessie is reminded that a married daughter draws with her husband's family. Tessie still insists, "It wasn't fair." But while she pleads and argues, the men put five pieces of paper in the box: one a piece for each parent, and one for each of their children. The violent nature of people is seen to be like that of animals: animals will attack and kill adults as well as the young. In the lottery, not even the children are spared. Little Dave isn't even old enough to open his own paper, indicating he wouldn't be old enough to understand what is being done to him if he were chosen to die.
When it's time, they all attack her with stones; we already know...
...someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Calmness in the face of such violence is appalling.
The people in "The Lottery" are not innately bad, vicious, or violent. They are "good people," "good neighbors," and undoubtedly "good Christians." But they are ignorant, and their ignorance binds them to a ritual they cannot help observing because everybody else is observing it. That is what is so horrible about the effect of the story. Here is a significant quote:
"Well, now," Mr Summers said soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work."
This is something they have to do because it is June 27th, so they might as well get it over with. Nobody (with the possible exception of some small boys) is there because he or she wants to be there but because it is compulsory. We all do things we think we must do. And then one day perhaps we realize we don't.
A little later, after the drawing for family names, Mr. Summers shows his motivation to get this distasteful but necessary business over and done with for another year.
"Well, everyone," Mr. Summers said, "that was done pretty fast, and now we've got to be hurrying a little more to get done in time."
And then when Tessie has drawn the slip with the black spot:
"All right, folks," Mr. Summers said. "Let's finish quickly."
These folks in Shirley Jackson's story need a leader to tell them to stop. In the New Testament, Jesus told the people not to stone the woman who was undeniably guilty of adultery. But in "The Lottery" there is no one to take the initiative. There are only a couple of feeble signs of protest.
The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, "I hope it's not Nancy," and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd.
It will be somebody of the young generation who takes the lead against this ritual someday. Why does the girl in the crowd feel she has to whisper?
Earlier in the story there is a strong suggestion that people elsewhere in this never-never land are questioning the lottery ritual.
"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."
And Mrs. Adams tells Old Man Warner (the voice of Tradition):
"Some places have already quit lotteries."
The good people in Shirley Jackson's story are all victims.