On a late summer morning, the villagers of a small New England town gather to conduct their annual lottery. There is an air of festivity among them, especially the children. Only a few in the crowd reveal slight hints of tension or unease.
The lottery has a long history in this and surrounding towns. The people who run it—in this town, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves—work hard to preserve the rituals that have been passed down from year to year. Changes have crept in, and some old-timers such as Old Man Warner regret what they perceive as a loss of a heritage that has preserved the happiness and prosperity of the town over time.
All the villagers finally arrive, Tessie Hutchinson being one of the last. Mr. Summers conducts the preliminaries, ensuring that each family is represented and that those who are absent have someone on hand to draw for them. Finally the lottery begins: Heads of families step forward and draw small paper slips from the black box that Mr. Summers keeps for the occasion. As this goes on, townspeople engage in small talk, and the air of festivity gives way to a pervasive aura of nervousness.
When all the slips are drawn, Bill Hutchinson discovers that he has picked the one marked with a black spot. Immediately Tessie begins complaining that the drawing was not conducted properly. Others encourage her to be a good sport, however, and her protests fall on deaf ears. She and the other members of her immediate family now come forward and draw slips, as various townspeople whisper apprehensively. Tessie draws the slip with the black spot. Mr. Summers commands, “Let’s finish quickly.”
The townspeople now move off to a cleared spot outside the town, Tessie in the center of the group. A desperate woman now, Tessie entreats the crowd to go through the ritual again, doing things fairly. Ignoring her protests, the men, women, and children of the town begin stoning her.
Just before 10 a.m. on June 27, the three hundred inhabitants of a small village in New England start gathering at the town square. The children arrive first, and some of the boys begin to put rocks and stones into a pile. As the morning progresses, the men of the village begin to arrive, coming from their farms and fields. They are soon joined by their wives, who have come from their household chores. The scene is convivial: The children laugh and play, and the adults joke and gossip.
Eventually, Mr. Summers, a local businessperson who seems to be in charge of the assembly, arrives, carrying a large black box. He is followed by the village postmaster, Mr. Graves, who carries a stool. Two men help Mr. Summers place the heavy box on the stool, and Mr. Summers begins to stir and shuffle the hundreds of slips of paper that are inside the box. Then, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves begin drawing up lists of families, including the head of each household and the names of all members of each family. The old and decrepit box makes it clear that some sort of ancient tradition is being followed. The villagers recall that in the past the procedure had been longer and more elaborate. The oldest denizen of the town, Old Man Warner, points out that this is his seventy-seventh year participating in the ritual, called simply the lottery.
As the men are working on the lists of families, Tessie Hutchinson arrives, the last villager to join the crowd at the square. Tessie had realized at the last minute, while she was washing dishes, that today is June 27. Her friends and neighbors tease her about her tardiness.
The lottery begins. Mr. Summers calls up each head of household in alphabetical order, from Adams to Zanini. As people draw their slips, the villagers show a certain degree of nervousness. However, homespun humor reasserts itself when Bill Hutchinson is called and his wife urges him forward in a raucous and bossy way, causing those around her to snicker. While the drawings by the heads of households continues, Old Man Warner gets into a discussion with the people sitting near him about the background of the lottery. It appears that the lotteries used to be common in the region, but some villages have given up the practice. These breaks in tradition elicit Old Man Warner’s scorn: “There’s always been a lottery,” he insists, and he attributes the abandonment of the ritual to the current generation, whom he denounces as a “[p]ack of young fools.” He also reveals that the lottery is in essence a fertility ritual, and he quotes a half-forgotten adage: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
All of the heads of families have finished drawing their slips of paper. Bill finds that he has drawn a slip with a dark splotch. It soon becomes apparent that something sinister is going on, as Tessie shouts out, “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair.” Dickie Delacroix’s mother urges Tessie to “Be a good sport,” and Bill’s advice to his wife is grim and terse: “Shut up, Tessie.” Tessie, however, continues to argue about the fairness of the procedure.
The slips of paper are retrieved, including the one with the ominous black splotch. Next, each of the five members of the Hutchinson family is made to draw from five slips. As this second drawing proceeds, one of Nancy Hutchinson’s school friends murmurs, “I hope it’s not Nancy,” a wish that draws fresh scorn from Old Man Warner. The Hutchinsons each display their slips of paper—Tessie’s slip is dotted. Mr. Summers announces “Let’s finish quickly,” an exhortation in keeping with an earlier indication that the time of the lottery has been set at 10 a.m. so that the villagers can return home in time for their noon meals.
As Tessie stands alone, her neighbors and family and friends pick up stones and rocks from the piles the boys had amassed earlier. Dickie’s mother selects a rock so huge, she can barely lift it, and little Dave Hutchinson, too, is given a few small rocks to throw. As Tessie shrieks about the unfairness of the ritual, the villagers begin to stone her to death.
Jackson once indicated that if she had never published any other work, she would be remembered for “The Lottery.” After the story came out in The New Yorker in 1948, Jackson received hundreds of letters, most of which were overwhelmingly negative. The letter writers were shocked, bemused, and, in some cases, frankly abusive. Many people wanted to know where and when the lottery was held so that they could witness it. Set in modern times in what some readers assumed was Jackson’s home of Bennington, Vermont, “The Lottery” caused a nationwide stir and made the author famous in her own time.
Jackson begins the story with typical understatement. The sun is shining on a summer’s day. Children are not in school, and they are the first to gather in the village square. Their parents join them as the hour for the lottery approaches. Soon everyone in the village is present (with the exception of Clyde Dunbar, who has a broken leg). Mr. Summers, who runs a coal business, is the master of ceremonies. He and the postmaster, Mr. Graves, set a black box on a stool in the middle of the square. There is an air of anticipation as Mr. Summers stirs the slips of paper in the black box and begins the drawing.
The villagers have done this many times before. For Old Man Warner, this is his seventy-seventh lottery. The event does not take long. It starts at ten o’clock in the morning and is over in a couple of hours. Everyone will be back home in time for the midday meal. There is even an air of frivolity that Old Man Warner deplores (“Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody.”).
Finally, all the names are called, all the slips are drawn, and the women begin to ask anxiously, “Who is it? Who’s got it?” It turns out that the Hutchinson family has the fateful slip. Tessie Hutchinson begins to complain that the drawing was not fair, that her husband Bill did not have enough time. Another, briefer drawing is held with only the Hutchinson family involved. The suspense is merciless, but at last the holder of the slip with the black dot is revealed: Tessie herself. Without pause, and in a business-like way, all the villagers, including Tessie’s own family, pick up the stones and descend upon the victim.
Jackson has Old Man Warner explain that the lottery is an ancient rite to ensure a good harvest each year. In times past, the rite was conducted with more ceremony, more seriousness. Now, however, the villagers have forgotten the liturgy. They even seem to have forgotten why they stone one individual to death every June 27. Like automatons, they follow tradition unthinkingly, simply doing what has always been done.
The scapegoating and mob frenzy that takes place in “The Lottery” seem to clash violently with the contemporary New England village setting. This graphic juxtaposition makes a strong statement about senseless violence and mindless social evil in modern times. As literature, “The Lottery” is a fine example of “sunlit horror,” a nightmare story that takes place in broad daylight. “The Lottery” begins with sunlight and child’s play, and ends in ritualized murder.