In Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” how is lottery symbolism used?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As its very title suggests, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” focuses on an apparent game of chance.  Unless lotteries are rigged, they are supposed to be decided purely by accident, not by any design.  Jackson uses the basic symbol of lotteries in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Lotteries are usually considered good things in which some people win a great deal and most people lose just a little.  In this lottery, however, one person loses greatly (she is stoned to death), while the community at large apparently thinks that it actually benefits.
  • In typical lotteries, the winners are quite happy to have won; Tessie Hutchinson, of course, is anguished to have been chosen.
  • Most lotteries allow individuals to choose to participate or not participate. In this lottery, however, there seems no escape clause. Not only are all citizens of the town expected to participate, but they do not even have to be physically present, as is implied in the following passage:

"Well, now," Mr. Summers said soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work. Anybody ain't here?"

"Dunbar," several people said. "Dunbar, Dunbar."

Mr. Summers consulted his list. "Clyde Dunbar," he said. "That's right. He's broke his leg, hasn't he? Who's drawing for him?"

  • Lotteries that do involve the possibility of danger (such as the military draft) do not generally have such happy, cheerful, willing participants as does the lottery described in Jackson’s story. It is this tone of cheerfulness that makes us fail to suspect, until very near the end of the work, that this lottery is anything to fear.
  • Lotteries, once begun in one community, tend to spread to others, as can be seen from the multiplication of state lotteries in the U. S. during the past several decades. Once they are established, they tend to endure.  In Jackson’s story, the town the story depicts is one of a decreasing number of communities that still have lotteries.
  • Lotteries designed to benefit communities usually do so in quite unambiguous ways, such as funding schools or funding services for the elderly. The lottery depicted in this story, however, seems rooted in mere superstition that maintaining the lottery will ensure a good annual crop of corn.

In many ways, then, Jackson treats lottery symbolism with a good deal of irony in this work.

Read the study guide:
The Lottery

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