What different types of irony are in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson?

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Irony can be a situation, a verbal expression, or a dramatic circumstance in which something ends up in a completely opposite way from what was expected or meant to happen. In literature, there are three types of irony: 

a) verbal, b) dramatic and c) situational. 

In "The Lottery" you see all three types of irony as the story unfolds.

Verbal irony occurs when we use words to convey a meaning, but this meaning is different from, or completely opposite of, the literal meaning that the words are meant to convey. 

It's a little difficult to identify verbal irony--ironic things that are said (or written, as in a letter) by a character--in this story because most of the story is narrated and because there is little actual dialogue that highlights irony, meaning that most of the lines spoken are not replied to or not replied to significantly. For example, consider the seemingly meaningless yet ironic exchange between Mrs. Hutchinson and Mrs. Delacroix:

"Clean forgot what day it was," [Mrs. Hutchinson] said to Mrs. Delacroix ...  Mrs. Delacroix said, "You're in time, though. They're still talking away up there."

The things Mrs. Hutchinson says are verbal irony but tend to confuse because they also indicate situational irony, as does "Clean forgot what day it was." This is verbal irony because she says she almost forgot the day, and the day is the most important village day of the year. This is also situational irony because her situation makes this the most important day of her all too soon to be ended life. When an author skillfully weaves techniques together in such a seamless way, it can be confusing sorting them out.

Perhaps the clearest example in the story of verbal irony is in the seemingly simple remarks Mr. Summers makes about the timing of the village gathering. He makes two remarks about the timing:

  • Mr. Summers said, "that was done pretty fast, and now we've got to be hurrying a little more to get done in time."
  • "All right, folks." Mr. Summers said. "Let's finish quickly."

This is verbal irony because he says something, and what he says is commonplace, everyday and innocent sounding, yet it is oddly applied to an annual event of enough significance (we readers don't yet know why it is significant) to require everyone's orderly and ritual-governed attendance (they gather, but not randomly; they gather in regulated family units: "Daughters draw with their husbands' families...."). His words carry meaning that is ironically opposite of the expected meaning: we expect the commonplace; we ironically encounter the bizarre. 

This leads to situational irony. The lottery that the story talks about is clearly a primitive and barbaric sacrificial game of chance. The townspeople have even lost track of the true beginnings of the game: "the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box."

They feel satisfied that the lottery was first created as a way to secure crops through human sacrifice (the words "human sacrifice" are never said in the story): "Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.'" They also say that some villages have done away with it: "'Some places have already quit lotteries.'" The irony of this particular situation is that villagers bring up this fact, then dismiss it as something that is too ridiculous to consider, that is, they think that ending the lottery is ridiculous and out of place:

“Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves.”

The characters have completely twisted the worlds of the rational and the irrational. This is a great part of the situational irony of the story. 

Another instance of situational irony is the title. A "lottery" is a game of chance. While the word itself is not indicative of something positive or negative, the overall expectation of a "lottery" is that such a game of chance is an opportunity to gain something good. The situational irony here is that this lottery that the story is about is actually evil and macabre, going contrary to the expectation of good. The lottery does lead to a "win," but "winning" is actually losing: The winner will lose his or her life at the end of the game if their name is selected. Not only will they be killed, but the winner will also be killed mercilessly by the very people with whom he or she shares life every day.

Friends, family, neighbors, everybody partakes in delivering the "win" of "the lottery." Moreover, they all pick their stones and attack the "winner" as they stone the individual to death. Also ironic is the fact that this title is actually what keeps the reader from understanding what is really happening until the very end. It is a clever, ironic play on words.

Now, the dramatic irony is a bit different to catch from the verbal and the situational, especially in this story. The dramatic irony is different in that, first, the foreshadowing sets it up and, second, the audience knows something that the characters do not know. 

Catching the dramatic irony in this story depends upon understanding the hints of foreshadowing provided by the narrator. If you are able to identify the foreshadowing (which, of course, in the first reading, we are not) of the actual meaning of the lottery through the very subtle cues that Shirley Jackson offers, then the dramatic irony is clear to you as you can foreknow what the end of Mrs. Hutchinson and the story will be.

If you do not catch the foreshadowing (and first time readers never do), then this story represents reverse dramatic irony: the characters know what we do not know; the characters know that the lottery will select the human sacrifice whose blood will protect the crops. In this case of reverse dramatic irony, the characters know what the lottery entails, and not the reader.

Therefore, if you catch the foreshadowing, then a good example of dramatic irony is revealed in the foreshadowing that Tessie's name will ultimately be picked as she ironically shows up late for the lottery. If, on the other hand, you miss the foreshadowing, then there is a good example of reverse dramatic irony because the characters know what we readers do not know.

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