Shirley Jackson creates a mixed mood of growing curiosity, growing anticipation, growing apprehension, growing suspicion, growing uncanniness, and growing dread. She begins disarmingly with a description of a peaceful small-town setting.
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.
Somehow the innocuous setting with the words "clear," "sunny," "warmth," etc., arouse a glimmer of suspicion. Another chilling story by Shirley Jackson, "The Possibility of Evil," starts in a similar manner.
Miss Adela Strangeworth stepped daintily along Main Street on her way to the grocery. The sun was shining, the air was fresh and clear after the night’s heavy rain, and everything in Miss Strangeworth’s little town looked washed and bright. Miss Strangeworth took deep breaths, and thought that there was nothing in the world like a fragrant summer day.
Then we learn about the boys gathering stones. Why should they be doing that? And why should their parents be allowing them to do it on what appears to be a rather formal occasion in the center of town?
Why do the rest of the villagers appear so stiff and nervous. They are not their usual selves. On such an occasion there should be a lot of greetings, jokes and laughter. But it is ominously quiet for an attendance of some three hundred people. The men seem especially subdued. We will realize later that they know the real killing will be mostly up to them. The boys won't be strong enough to throw their stones hard enough to kill. The women may not even try to hit the target. This is a patriarchal thing, as it was in the New Testament when the men were planning to stone a woman to death for being caught in adultery. (The man who was with her at the time was probably let off with a warning.)
Shirley Jackson very deliberately keeps the purpose of this lottery a mystery until Bill Hutchinson draws the slip of paper with the black spot which indicates that it is his family that will be affected. Immediately his wife Tessie begins protesting.
Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. "You didn't give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn't fair!"
All the other people in this mandatory assembly are relieved. Evidently the "winner" in this lottery is the loser and the losers are all winners--at least for another year. Tessie turns out to be the holder of the slip with the black spot, which indicates that she is the member of the Hutchinson family who has been selected for whatever it is she will receive. She obviously doesn't like it. She keeps protesting, but her friends and neighbors ignore her. She has somehow become an outsider in just a few moments.
It isn't until Tessie gets hit by a rock that the reader finally realizes the meaning of the lottery. Shirley Jackson describes it very well.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone."
Can this really be happening in small-town America? Probably not. But there are a lot of things happening behind closed doors in small-town America that nobody knows about.
By starting her story in a small town on a story-book warm, sunny day, and by keeping the sinister purpose of the annual town lottery a secret up to the last, Shirley Jackson builds and builds the darkening mood right up to the very last words. It is as if black clouds are gathering overhead and are gradually obscuring the landscape with their dark shadows.
"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.