Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1419
Narration, Tone, and Style
Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” is told from an objective, third-person point of view. The narrator is positioned as an external observer, who is not involved in the proceedings of the lottery. It reveals very little about the thoughts or feelings of the characters. The only way to know the characters’ thoughts is through the descriptions of their behavior or the dialogue tags. This lack of access to thoughts and feelings enhances the contrast between the violence of the characters' actions and their apparent civility. Since readers do not know what they are thinking, the story takes on a detached, apathetic tone. Readers are not given the sense that anyone cares about Tessie’s death, increasing the disparity between reader reaction and character reaction.
The detached tone of the story also speaks to the desensitization of the townspeople to violence. The lottery is a yearly tradition. Based on the participation of the children, this is no one’s first lottery. Every person in attendance, except for the reader, knows what to expect from the ceremony. Their nervousness provides a tense undercurrent to the initial drawing by the heads of each household. However, after the Hutchinsons are chosen, the mood shifts to one of solemn resignation—for everyone except for Tessie. Tessie’s outbursts about the unfairness of the selection process provide a stark contrast to everyone else’s quiet relief. Even the rest of the Hutchinson family seems resigned to the process. The detached and objective tone of the rest of the story provides a chilling backdrop to the cries of a condemned woman.
The titular lottery in the short story represents blind adherence to tradition. The townspeople do not know when or why it started, but they continue to practice it out of fear. For them, the lottery is a cornerstone of their society. To give it up would irrevocably change their culture. The lottery is so ingrained in the small town that they don’t hesitate to kill whomever is selected. For the townspeople, this is a normal, accepted fact of life. There is no guilt or hesitation exhibited by anyone other than Tessie as she is stoned to death. They have all done this before, and they will likely all do it again. Old Man Warner claims that “there has always been a lottery.” In his eyes, that is justification enough to continue the practice in perpetuity. For the townspeople, there has always been a lottery, so they do not know how to envision a world where it does not exist. Even though the lottery actively harms people, Jackson's story seems to suggest that it is human nature to prefer familiarity over change.
The Black Box
The black box has two symbolic purposes. The first is its symbolic importance to the people of the town. For them, the box serves as a symbol of tradition and of the lottery itself. They believe that it contains wood shards from the original box used by their ancestors. The box is their physical link to the historical context that produced the lottery. For readers, the box is symbolic in a different way. It represents the inconsistency of the townspeople’s adherence to tradition. Though they refuse to make a new box, they also openly admit that it is not the original. When Joe Summers proposes using slips of paper instead of wood chips, the town agrees. The box comes to represent the compromises that the townspeople have already made with regards to tradition.
How the box is stored also offers a glimpse at the increasingly marginalized place the box—and the lottery itself—occupies in the public consciousness. The box is stored haphazardly in the post office, the grocery store, or in Mr. Summers's office. It is ignored at best and considered actively inconvenient at worst. It is not treated with any degree of reverence outside of the lottery proceedings. On a more symbolic level, the box has no designated place in society. Instead, it gets stored wherever there is space—even if that means people have to trip over it at the post office. This suggests that the lottery also has no place in society. Instead, the townspeople continue to host it despite their mounting dissatisfaction with its presence.
The pile of stones that the village children gather symbolizes the shared accountability of the killing. Stoning is one of the few methods of execution wherein multiple people participate at once. In this way, it is a community event, like the square dances that Mr. Summers hosts. Everyone throws stones at the victim. As a result, It is nearly impossible to ascertain who threw the stone that landed the killing blow. This absolves each individual of the responsibility for killing Tessie. However, symbolically, it also represents the shared guilt of the townspeople. Though it is impossible to ascertain who threw the stone that killed Tessie, everyone threw one, which means that everyone helped kill her. Thematically speaking, the lack of individual guilt serves as a symbolic reminder that the true villain is not the townspeople. Instead, the villain of “The Lottery” is the system itself.
Names as Allusions
Many of the family names in “The Lottery” serve as allusions. When viewed holistically, they reinforce the theme that blind adherence to tradition is meaningless. Many of the names also have Christian connotations. These names suggest that the townspeople have symbolically rejected free will in favor of mindlessly perpetuating the lottery. By upholding the lottery as a tradition without knowing its origins or purposes, the townspeople have become morally corrupt.
The name “Hutchinson” alludes to the 17th-century religious dissenter Anne Hutchinson. Born in Puritan-dominated Massachusetts, Hutchinson believed that the church had grown complacent. In her eyes, the Puritans had begun valuing the rituals of Christianity over true belief. Her teachings caused a schism in the Puritan community. As a result, she was excommunicated from the church and exiled from Massachusetts. Anne Hutchinson’s experiences parallel Tessie’s: they both urge their communities to embrace individual morality over rituals. In the end, they both fail. The allusion to Anne Hutchinson suggests the dangers of being a dissenter. It also criticizes the townspeople for preferring a ritual of faith—as symbolized by the lottery—over morality.
Both “Martin” and “Delacroix” are allusions as well. The name “Martin” is likely an allusion to Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Luther believed that the Catholic Church was corrupt. He thought that they were more focused on material wealth than on true faith. As a result, he led the Protestant Reformation. This allusion positions the lottery as a meaningless ritual. It calls on readers to question the lottery’s place in society.
“Delacroix” is a French name that translates to “of the cross.” This alludes to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. However, Christ was a martyr for his cause; he went to his death willingly. In contrast, Tessie does not want to die. Although the narrative does not suggest that anything will change as a result, the townspeople believe that her death is necessary. Tessie’s death is a perversion of the idea of martyrdom. Rather than nobly sacrificing herself for the town, Tessie is instead killed by random chance.
Another meaningful name in the story is “Bentham.” Though the Bentham family never appear as characters, the name alludes to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham founded the philosophy of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism claims that the action that brings the most good to the most people is the most morally just. In practice, utilitarianism reinforces the importance of the majority over the minority. Using utilitarian morality, Tessie Hutchinson’s death is moral because it benefits the majority of the town.
The name “Adams” is a direct biblical allusion. In Christian theology, Adam is the first man. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. For having disobeyed their God, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. In Christian theology, Adam and Eve’s transgression is considered the introduction of knowledge and civilization into the world. In the context of “The Lottery,” Mr. and Mrs. Adam introduce new knowledge by informing the townspeople that other towns have stopped hosting lotteries. The Adams’ insinuation that the lottery may not be necessary suggests a superior understanding of good and evil. By mentioning the other towns, they invite both the townspeople and readers to view the lottery as a choice rather than a fact of life.