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.
Jackson establishes the setting of "The Lottery'' at the beginning of the story. It takes place on the morning of June 27th, a sunny and pleasant summer day, in the village square of a town of about three hundred people. The setting is described as tranquil and peaceful, with children playing and adults talking about everyday concerns. This seemingly normal and happy setting contrasts greatly with the brutal reality of the lottery. Few clues are given to a specific time and place in the story, a technique used to emphasize the fact that such brutality can take place in any time or in any place.
Jackson's narrative technique, the way she recounts the events in the story, is often described as detached and objective. Told from a third-person point of view, the narrator is not a participant in the story. The objective tone of the narrative, meaning the story is told without excessive emotionalism or description, helps to impart the ordinariness of the barbaric act.
Jackson uses symbolism, a literary technique in which an object, person, or concept represents something else, throughout ''The Lottery.'' For example, the story takes place on June 27, near the summer solstice, one of the two days in a year when the earth is farthest from the sun. Many prehistoric rituals took place on the summer solstice, so by setting the lottery at this time, Jackson...
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draws similarities to such ancient rituals. Another symbol in the story is the black box. Although it is old and shabby, the villagers are unwilling or unable to replace it, just as they are unwilling to stop participating in the lottery. Many critics have also argued that Jackson uses name symbology extensively in the story. For example, Mr. Summers's name is said to represent joviality, while Mr. Graves's name represents tragedy. Delacroix, which in French means "of the cross," suggests sacrifice because of its reference to Jesus Christ's death on the cross.
Jackson also uses irony, the recognition of a reality different from appearance, extensively in "The Lottery." It is ironic that the story takes place in a tranquil and peaceful setting because what actually occurs is brutal and violent. It is also ironic that the events of the story are related in a matter-of-fact and objective way, since the story as a whole seeks to elicit profound emotions and question morality.
"The Lottery" is often characterized as a parable, a story that presents a moral lesson through characters who represent abstract ideas. While no extensive character development takes place in the story, the shocking ending prompts readers to think about the moral implications of the lottery and how such issues relate to society as a whole. Certain characters represent certain ideas in the tale: Old Man Warner represents tradition and ritual, Mr. Summers represents joviality, Mr. Graves represents tragedy, and so forth. Jackson does not interject into the story any ethical commentary, but rather challenges readers to find their own meaning.
Gothic literature typically features such elements as horror, the supernatural, suspense, and violence. While "The Lottery" is not graphic in its description of Tessie's killing, it is considered an example of the Gothic genre because of the feeling of horror it generates in the reader. Because of Jackson's use of suspense, readers do not understand the full ramifications of the lottery until the end of the story. Readers could, in fact, think that it is a good thing to "win" the lottery. While some critics have faulted this technique, suggesting that Jackson deliberately misleads her readers, others have noted that it is a very effective means of highlighting the brutality of the story. Robert B. Heilman, for example, wrote in Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology: "Suddenly, in the midst of this ordinary, matter-of-fact environment, there occurs a terrifying cruel action."