The irony of the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is that the original purpose of the lottery is never given. The reader learns that the lottery has been done “for generations” and is regarded as an annual tradition. However, over time, people have forgotten much about it or what its original purpose was or even what it was like at its inception. For instance, the author writes that “because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded,” they were able to substitute slips of paper for the wood chips that traditionally had been used. Later, Jackson writes that “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.” Even “the original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago.”
Thus, although the lottery is an annual tradition, people do not know why it came into being. People all remember that it is held on June 27 every year, but no one explains why it was introduced. People recall the date as they would the date of a major holiday that occurs on the same day each year. This is evident when Mrs. Hutchinson comes hurrying to the town square, saying that she, “clean forgot what day it was." This is also foreshadowing that it will be Mrs. Hutchinson whose name is selected.
The story is constructed in such a way that the reader believes throughout that the lottery is festive, much like a square dance or May Day or other happy event. In other words, the reader believes that the townspeople gather in the town square to celebrate. It is not until the very end that its true purpose is revealed. The reader is therefore shocked when in the final lines it becomes evident why they hold the lottery. We can perhaps surmise that it was originally established to teach people to respect the law, as a deterrent to errant behavior, but no reason is given.