The Lottery Analysis

  • An objective third-person narrator states the facts of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." The narrator is purely an observer and does not give readers access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Villagers express themselves solely through action and dialogue.
  • Jackson gives her characters particularly meaningful names. Mr. Summers, for instance, represents the vitality of that season. Mr. Graves represents death, as well as a grave, serious demeanor, whereas Old Man Warner warns the other villagers against breaking with tradition.
  • Jackson conceals the purpose of the lottery until the very end of the short story. There are hints early in the story indicating that people are reluctant to participate in the lottery, and Tessie's insistence that the lottery isn't fair betrays her terror at the thought of "winning" the lottery. 

Analysis

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Style and Technique

A first-time reader of “The Lottery” often finds the ending a surprise. The festive nature of the gathering and the camaraderie of the townspeople as the lottery is conducted belie the horror that occurs at the conclusion of the tale. That is one of the tale’s strongest points. Another strength, however, is the skillful way in which Jackson prepares the careful reader for the denouement by including key details so that, on a second reading, one is assured that there is no trick being played on the reader.

Jackson is able to keep the reader off guard by making use of an objective, third-person narrative style in which details are presented but no judgments are made. It is almost as if one is seeing a film or observing events by looking over the shoulders of the participants, without being able to see into the minds of the people. Any hints of inner turmoil are merely suggested by the actions of the characters: a nervous lilt of the voice, a shuffling of feet, a whisper when normal speech would be appropriate. On the other hand, the description of outward actions and physical setting is direct and, when viewed in retrospect, contributes directly to the macabre climax toward which the story moves. The story opens with a scene of small children gathering stones. Townspeople remark about the absence of certain people. These are chilling foreshadowings of what is to come.

Jackson also makes use of symbolic names to give her story universal significance. “Summers” suggests the association with fertility rites. “Graves” signifies the notion of death that runs through the tale. “Warner” characterizes the voice of the past, warning the citizens of the town that breaking with tradition will have dire consequences. The roll call of townspeople goes through the alphabet—Adams to Zanini. Finally, the choice of New England as a setting will suggest to those familiar with history the notion of witchcraft, for which almost two dozen people were put to death in 1692. These and other details help raise “The Lottery” from a simple tale of terror to a study of a universal human problem that persists in all times in one form or another.