The Lottery Key Ideas and Commentary
by Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This story is probably one of the best-known in 20th century American literature—not necessarily because it is philosophically profound or artistically excellent, but because its conclusion catches the reader unaware and horrifies him or her with its barbarity.

At first, one expects the usual convention of a lottery—that someone will win a desirable prize. However, as the reader progresses into the story, ominous details suggest that more is at stake. When Tessie Hutchinson draws the unlucky token and objects that “It wasn’t fair,” the townspeople urge her to be a good sport and accept her prize. All the townspeople join in the stoning, even her own children.

The basic social theme focuses on how people often hold on to customs, even when they are barbaric and have lost their earlier meaning. The idea of the lottery itself refers back to a primitive fertility custom of scapegoating; that is, choosing one member of the community to be sacrificed to appease the gods and assure a good crop.

What makes the story so disturbing is that it does not take place in a primitive society in the distant past but rather in America in the 20th century. Moreover, instead of being written as if it were a parable of man’s primitive nature, it is presented realistically as if it were actually taking place. When “THE LOTTERY” was first published, many readers wrote to Jackson demanding to know where such horrors were being tolerated.


Allen, Barbara. “A Folkloristic Look at Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’” Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 46, no. 4 (December, 1980): 119-124. Discusses the use of folklore in the story, not as the static incorporation of folkloric items into the plot, but rather as a representation of folkloric performance or behavior.

Carpenter, Lynette. “Domestic Comedy, Black Comedy, and Real Life: Shirley Jackson, Woman Writer.” In Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Discusses the reasons for Jackson’s critical neglect and the need for a reevaluation of her work, especially by feminist critics.

Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne, 1975. The best introduction to Jackson’s life and work. Chapter 2, “The Short Stories,” is divided into fifteen subsections, surveying some three dozen of the stories, including most of those in The Lottery, under such headings as “Fantasy,” “Social Evil,” and “Use of Irony.” Friedman’s comments are necessarily fairly brief—a story may be covered in three pages or, more often, in three sentences—but generally insightful. Includes bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, the latter annotated.

Nebeker, Helen E. “‘The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force.” American Literature 46 (1974): 100-107. Analyzes the significance and patterning of the numerous symbols in Jackson’s most famous story. A frequently cited and influential article.

Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York: George Putnam’s Sons, 1988. Neither scholarly nor well written, but still the only full-length biography of Jackson.

(The entire section is 718 words.)