Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

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

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Last Updated on January 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

''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...

(This entire section contains 532 words.)

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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 alienation and withdrawal, of cruelty and terror, have been taken to be personal, even neurotic fantasies. Quite the reverse: They are a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the bomb."

The spread of Communism was also a major concern in 1948. Communists took over in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet occupation force in Germany set up a blockade between Berlin and West Germany, and tensions rose between the democratic Republic of South Korea and Communist-led North Korea. Additionally, the term "Cold War" was coined by President Truman's advisor Bernard Baruch to describe the increasing hostilities between East and West. In the U.S. Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Alger Hiss, a State Department official accused of supplying the Soviet Union with classified documents. Two years later in 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy started a Communist "witch hunt" that continued for the next four years. Also in 1950, the McCarran Act (Control of Communists Act) was passed by congress to severely restrict suspected Communists. A few years earlier in 1947, many figures in the American entertainment industry were accused of having Communist Party affiliations. That year the Hollywood blacklist, which included some 300 writers, directors, and actors, was compiled. Such popular figures as Charlie Chaplin, Lee Grant, and Arthur Miller were accused of being Communists.

The United States during the late 1940s and 1950s was largely a patriarchal society, one in which women were expected to stay at home and raise the children. Recent critics have interpreted "The Lottery" from a feminist perspective, suggesting that Jackson was commenting on the role of women in American society at the time the story was written. Peter Kosenko, for example, stated in The New Orleans Review in 1985 that in "The Lottery," the women "have a distinctly subordinate position in the socio-economic hierarchy of the village."

Critical Reception

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372

Jackson achieved both popular and critical success during her lifetime, but apart from the phenomenally well known “The Lottery,” her work has received little serious attention since her death. Lynette Carpenter has speculated that “the reasons for this neglect are also the reasons for the reevaluation of Shirley Jackson by feminist critics”; she argues that traditional critics dismissed Jackson’s work because she specialized in genres that were not considered suitable for serious fiction, especially gothic novels, humorous writing, and domestic sketches. More recent critics have begun to explore the thematic depth underlying Jackson’s sketches, which are ostensibly concerned with what critic Anne LeCroy has called “the paraphernalia of living” but which can be seen with hindsight to challenge all the conservative dogma about women’s roles current in the late 1940’s. Jackson’s women are torn between the relative security of traditional domestic roles, with their demand of complete self-abnegation, and the flight to personal freedom, with its apparently inevitable consequence of the disintegration of the old sense of identity. Her stories offer no easy solution to the dilemma, but pose it in a variety of humorous and/or horrifying terms. As Richard Pascal has remarked, “What seems to fascinate Shirley Jackson most is the possibility that behind the self which we ordinarily assume to be irrevocably ingrained, if not preordained, there is nothing immutably necessary which we can call our own; it is, for her, an idea which is both frightening and alluring.”

Although these issues are of central importance to women’s literature, they are also significant for all human beings. As critic Donna Burrell has observed, Jackson “explored not only the division of the community’s tasks, but also the network of roles available to each gender, the justification, if any, for these divisions, and the problems which occur if a person of either gender does not fit his or her role.” Jackson’s view of human nature is essentially a pessimistic one—none of her stories offers anything like a traditional happy ending for her characters—but also a challenging and fascinating one, dramatizing the tension inherent in the effort to maintain both an individual and a social identity in a series of striking psychological parables.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

1948: A Hollywood blacklist is compiled in 1947 and several figures in the entertainment industry are accused of being Communists.

Today: Although all U. S. citizens are able to freely choose their political affiliations, few deviate from major political party lines. Ross Perot and the Labor Reform Party only garnered 8.5 percent of the vote in the 1996 presidential election according to an ABC news report.

1948: The Soviet Union occupies East Germany and blocks traffic between West Germany and Berlin.

Today: The Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961, falls in 1989; East and West Germany reunite in 1990.

1948: Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger founds the International Planned Parenthood Federation, ushering in an era in which women are able to take more control over their own bodies.

Today: Birth control methods such as oral contraceptives and the Norplant implant are legal and widely used in the United States.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading