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The setting of a quiet rural town with villagers who know and greet one another in short phrases and cliches on familiar terms disarms the reader of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." The expectation is for an activity much like a picnic or fair of some sort rather than the grim and macabre stoning of one of the villagers that the others know so well.
For example, when the villagers draw lotteries from the worn black box that Mr. Summers brings and places on the three-legged stool, nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. After the people say, "Bill Hutchinson's got it." Mrs. Dunbar quietly says to her older son, "Go tell your father." The sudden shouting of Tessie Hutchinson and her cry of "It wasn't fair" causes the reader to wonder what is occurring, especially when Mrs. Delacroix acts as though Tessie is out of control: "Be a good sport, Tessie," Mrs. Delacroix calls, and Mrs Graves adds, "All of us took the same chance."
At first, the reader does not realize that Tessie's name has been drawn for a stoning. For, the festive move of the children running about and gathering stones suggests a playful atmosphere, not a deadly one.
Having written this story in the wake of World War II, Jackson wished to alert people to the innate brutality of man. Jackson herself noted:
"I hoped by setting a particularly ancient brutal rite in the present and in my own village [North Bennington, Vermont], to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their lives."
Setting the story in a part of the contemporary U.S. noted for its town meetings and other democratic institutions, with their attention to individual rights, implies that barbarity lurks below the most civilized exterior, that civilization is fragile, and that from Thomas Jefferson, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Never mind that this is the same part of the country that gave us the Salem witch trials of 1692. New Englanders may heed Jackson’s lesson more than anybody: Living through witch trials may make New Englanders think it couldn’t happen there again! To have set the story in a society that actually practiced human sacrifice, would destroy the ironic edge and the point of the story.
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