The Lottery Historical and Social Context
by Shirley Jackson

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Historical Context

Publication History and Reception

Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” was published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. It garnered a highly negative response from readers, many of whom sent angry letters to Jackson and The New Yorker. People were confused and angered by the ending of the story. They felt that the concept of the lottery system was preposterous and that the ending was designed purely for shock value. The New Yorker claims to have received over 300 letters from readers requesting clarification about the meaning of the story. Some readers and critics even assumed that the story was based on real events. “The Lottery” owes its continued popularity at least in part to the sensation it created after first being published. It rapidly became one of the most anthologized short stories ever written. Though less controversial today, it continues to be favored by critics and educators for its compelling themes and intriguing premise.

World War II and the Cold War

“The Lottery” was published near the beginning of the Cold War era. In response to rising tensions with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the United States was entering a political period often referred to as the Second Red Scare. In 1947, President Truman signed an executive order that required federal employees to be screened for affiliations with suspected communist, fascist, or otherwise subversive political organizations. American nationalism was on the rise as Americans focused on the perceived threat of Soviet Communism. “The Lottery” can be read as a response to the persecution of allegedly subversive individuals in the face of this rising American nationalism. During the Cold War, Americans began clinging to the idea of a traditional American way of life and exhibiting blind patriotism. This is reminiscent of the blind acceptance of the lottery the villagers in the story exhibit.

“The Lottery” also draws thematic influence from World War II, which ended in 1945. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, it was evident that ordinary people would commit horrific acts of violence under the right conditions. This idea is echoed by the behavior of the townspeople in Jackson's story. Most of them are nervous during the lottery proceedings. Outside of Old Man Warner, no one seems to genuinely like the lottery. However, the townspeople are afraid of what will happen if they do not hold the lottery every year. Their ignorance and fear allow them to go through with stoning Tessie, just as ignorance and fear allowed the Nazis to commit mass genocide.

Further Context

(Short Stories for Students)

''The Lottery'' was published in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II, but Jackson set the story in an indeterminate time and place. Many critics, however, have maintained that Jackson modeled the village after North Bennington, Vermont, where she and her husband lived after their marriage in 1940. After the story was published, some of Jackson's friends and acquaintances also suggested that many of its characters were modeled after people who lived in North Bennington. Jackson herself, who throughout her life said little about the meaning behind or the circumstances surrounding the story, noted: "I hoped by setting a particularly brutal ancient 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 humanity in their own lives."

Some critics have suggested that "The Lottery" is representative of the social, political, and cultural climate of the time it was written. In 1948 the world was still trying to confront the brutal realities of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. The Holocaust, in particular, revealed that society is capable of mass genocide if they believe it to be in the name of the common good. Jackson's husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, once wrote about the influence of world events on Jackson's fiction : "Her fierce visions of dissociations and madness, of...

(The entire section is 1,462 words.)