The publication of “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in June of 1948 created a scandal. Many readers canceled their subscriptions to the venerable magazine, and others wrote threatening letters to its author, Shirley Jackson. Later generations were puzzled by this controversy. The sources for the furor and scandal can be found in the structure of the story and its themes, in the mood of Americans in the late 1940’s, in the prejudices held by the reading public against certain literary genres, in the venue in which the story appeared, and in Jackson’s persona.
“The Lottery” presents a prototypal example of the surprise ending. Many writers, including Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, Saki, and H. H. Munro, made this sort of plot twist a hallmark of their craft. A decade later, two long-running television series, The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, regularly employed this device as well. Surprise endings often lead to reader delight, but not so with Jackson’s macabre story of human sacrifice. Jackson provides subtle hints in the story that something grim is in the offing—for example, the gathering of stones and rocks, the crowd’s sense of nervousness as the lottery proceeds, and Tessie’s alarm when her family “wins” the initial phase of the contest. Also, the lottery is held at the end of June, near the summer solstice, a time of year that features prominently in agricultural festivals throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Nevertheless, the characters seem so wholesome, so stereotypically small-town American, that it is easy for the reader to overlook the clues that Jackson provides. Such subtlety is a hallmark of Jackson’s craft, one to which horror novelist Stephen King made reference in the dedication to his 1980 novel Firestarter: “In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never needed to raise her voice.” In this dedication, King lists four of Jackson’s most celebrated works, one of which is “The Lottery” and the other is Jackson’s best-known work of long fiction, The Haunting of Hill House. This novel, too, begins in June and ends with a similar, though symbolic, sacrifice.
The surprise ending to “The Lottery” also reveals Jackson’s dark themes, including the warping effect on society of mindless tradition. Old Man Warner, the embodiment of rigid tradition, seems to believe that the sacrifice is necessary to ensure sufficient food for the village, but the other villagers are maintaining the practice out of habit and sheer inertia. They have forgotten why they are doing the ritual and have let it become a corrupt, atrophied shade of its earlier form; still, they insist on keeping the lottery because it has always been done. Simply out of tradition, they unquestioningly stone to death a neighbor whom they were laughing and joking with minutes earlier.
An even more pessimistic theme of the story is its interrogation of altruism and humanitarianism. No one in the village shows any concern for justice and kindness except Tessie—and she, too, starts to complain about the lottery only when she realizes that it is going to directly affect her own family. In short, Jackson suggests that people are not concerned about injustice and kindness unless these...
(The entire section is 788 words.)