Having been written in the wake of World War II and the silent compliance of many with outrageous acts against humanity, Jackson's message does, indeed, seem to be a warning against the human herd mentality. Many critics suggested that Jackson modeled the villagers after some of the residents of her North Bennington, Vermont, community. Regarding this similarity Jackson herself commented,
I hoped that by setting a particularly ancient brutal rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.
I agree with previous posters that there is probably no one definitive and complete "meaning" of such a work; if we don't hear anything specific from the author, it's open to reader interpretation. How many times do we just do what we've always done--just because we've always done it. Traditions and rites in church, in society, or in our own homes are generally harmless so we don't change or question them; however, the principle holds true for things which are far more serious and even deadly. Mindless adherence to anything is not a good idea.
In this "modern gothic" tale, to my mind Jackson is showing the dangers of tradition, status quo and stagnation, and how these aspects of our society can lead us all to be complicit in horrendous, barbaric crimes. Part of the sting in the tail of this excellent story is the fact that the ending is so unexpected precisely because the characters seem such normal people. Yet at the end, we see these "normal" people willingly and hurriedly rushing to stone one of their own, who they loved and who was a member of the community. None of them stop to question this act - they all join in. In the same way, tradition leads us to commit similar crimes - which go unquestioned.
I think what Jackson is really trying to say with this story is a huge BEWARE from the system and the status quo (much like the previous poster stated). She is showing in the story how humans have the capacity of becoming stagnant and unable to move on from traditions, forms of belief, tendencies, and other behaviors which slow our progress and sometimes bring us in a complete head collision with reality.
When a group of isolated individuals makes the combined decision of remaining stagnant and permanently decide to never change, the repercussions are unimaginable. They become past shadows of themselves and direct dangers to their qualities of lives.
Therefore, Jackson is showing this kind of behavior the way it really is under a scope that, unfortunately, is not that impossible to occur as an outcome.
I agree with booboosmoosh in that Jackson, like most authors wants you to "figure it out for yourself" but she does want you to come away from the story with some idea about life -- some theme(s) of the work. In order to discover themes, consider some of the other literary elements of the story:
1. symbolism of the stones -- stones of all sizes meet the ability of each member of the community to participate in the ritual -- even the littlest son of the Tess.
2. non-distinct, but small town, setting -- this could be anywhere
3. irony of the title -- we usually associate a lottery with a happy winner, and here the winner dies, but the town is happy to have fulfilled their duty: "Lottery in June; corn be heavy soon."
Then start brainstorming ideas of meaning: hypocrisy, mob mentality, traditions or rituals, the individual vs. the group. Once you have considered the literary elements and the themes, you can create a pretty solid understanding of what Jackson is really trying to say, and how she says it.
If you read the reviews of Jackson's story, you will find that the reactions to her work were varied: some negative and some positive.
In a critical overview it is noted,
Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren also suggested unease with the story's structure when they wrote in Understanding Fiction that Jackson ''has preferred to give no key to her parable but to leave its meaning to our inference."
Many authors (and even song writers) would prefer the work to speak for itself.
Critics surmised that the story was a "modern-day parable." It has been suggested that there is "potential for cruelty when the individual submits to the tyranny of the status quo."
One theme implies that acts of violence can take place anywhere, carried out by ordinary people. A frightening aspect to the story is the general acceptance of this "ritual," and how people can stand idly by and do nothing: 'if it does not affect me, then I won't put myself in harm's way to do anything about it.'
Jackson received letters questioning the meaning of this story until her death. It is a literary trademark that Jackson uses an even tone throughout a story to turn us dramatically around with an unexpected ending.
All research I have found indicates that Jackson, as a true artist, wanted the reader to take his or her own impressions away from the story, and let the story speak individually to each reader, without her telling people what to think: this is, after all, one of the themes of the story—knowing what is important to the individual and making decisions based on who we are and what we bring to the story (or to the circumstances at hand).
I agree about the point regarding human behaviour. We all have some sort of capability to do evil in our lives. This inherent characteristic is elavated when those around you are supportive of your actions and even in this case, join in. Had our poor winner, Tessie Hutchinson, seen one of her friends draw the slip with the dot, she too would have enthusiastically picked up her own stones to throw. Possibly even helping her youngest child in the attack.
Can we commit evil acts? of course. Is it considered evil, though, if society deems it acceptable?