The Lottery Questions and Answers

Shirley Jackson

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Lottery questions.

Why is the crowd important?

Shirley Jackson does an excellent job of creating the impression of a large crowd in attendance for the lottery drawing. She states that there were "only about three hundred people" in the village, and all of them are present except for a man named Clyde Dunbar who broke his leg. One way in which the author creates the impression of a large gathering is by her use of what James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny call "Anonymous Narration--No Character Point of View" in their excellent book, Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories (Rev. ed. 1995). Many characters are named, but none of the story is told through any character's point of view, nor is the narration from an omniscient third-person point of view. As Moffett and McElheny explain:

By staying outside the minds of all the characters, a narrator drops the role of confidant and relies entirely on eyewitness and chorus knowledge alone.

Jackson drops many references to "the crowd" throughout the story. For example:

Mrs. Hutchinson craned her neck to see through the crowd and found her husband and children standing near the front.
A tall boy in the crowd raised his hand.
A man disengaged himself from the crowd and came forward.
...and soft laughter ran through the crowd as the people stirred back into position after Mrs. Hutchinson's arrival.

There are many other references to the "crowd" from various angles. This one, which contains the word "crowd" twice, is especially noteworthy:

The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, "I hope it's not Nancy," and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd.

This is the only expression of human compassion in the story. The invisible and anonymous girl, about twelve years old like her friend Nancy Hutchinson, has to whisper because she is afraid of voicing anything which might seem to reflect unfavorably on the whole principle of this benighted lottery. But young people like her may someday raise their voices and demand that the town put an end to this superstitious idiocy. This is quite obviously a patriarchal society. The men run the lottery and the men draw the slips for their families. It may be the young women who will take the lead in affirming "felt values" over male-dominated tradition, as voiced so vehemently by Old Man Warner.

One result of creating the illusion that there is a large crowd of people assembled for this annual occasion is to make the climax especially effective when some 298 men, women and children--all friends, neighbors, and relatives--turn on one pathetic lone woman, Tessie Hutchinson, who is holding her hands out desperately as if trying to fend them off.

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

That last sentence of the story is especially chilling because of the whooshing suddenness with which the crowd attacks. This effect of suddenness is achieved by the use of a comma rather than a period right after the words, "'It isn't fair, it isn't right,' Mrs. Hutchinson screamed...." It is a small town, but 298 people are still a lot of people to be attacking a woman with stones. The sentence makes it seem as if they are almost upon her when she screams "It isn't fair, it isn't right." Jackson probably calls her "Mrs. Hutchinson" at that point rather than "Tessie Hutchinson" in order to remind the reader that she has a husband and three children--all of whom are undoubtedly among the crowd who are now intent on stoning her to death.

Who is little Davy?

The people of this little town cannot keep killing some citizen every year without adding to the population. Otherwise they would eventually stone themselves out of existence. That explains the importance of the character called little Davy. He is the newest addition to the town and represents all the children who are being born to make up for all the people who are getting stoned to death. Little Davy is also significant because the author shows how he is being conditioned to believe in and participate in the annual death-lottery. He is too young to understand what is going on. Nevertheless, he is a full-fledged participant. He can get stoned to death himself if he draws the wrong slip of paper, and he will be shown how to take part in the stoning.

Mr, Graves took the hand of the little boy, who came willingly with him up to the box. "Take a paper out of the box, Davy," Mr. Summers said. Davy put his hand into the box and laughed. "Take just one paper," Mr. Summers said. "Harry, you hold it for him." Mr. Graves took the child's hand and removed the folded paper from the tight fist and held it while little Dave stood next to him and looked up at him wonderingly.

(It is a nice touch to have Davy's hand held by a man named Mr. Graves.)

Tessie Hutchinson is little Davy's mother. It is understandable that she should be making such a loud protest about the way the drawing has been conducted. She is in a lose-lose situation. If she doesn't get stoned to death herself, she will have to participate in stoning her husband, her son Bill Jr., her daughter Nancy, or little Dave. This part of the lottery seems the most insidiously sadistic. Once a family has been selected, then they have to choose one of their own members as that year's victim. It turns out to be Tessie herself who draws the slip with the black mark. Little Davy's indoctrination is complete when he joins his father, his older brother, his older sister, and all their friends and neighbors in stoning his mother to death.

The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Davy is too young to understand what is happening. He must think it is all a game. But he will learn more each year--if he survives. In the meantime other children will be born to replace the townspeople who are stoned to death. Nancy Hutchinson is twelve years old, and she has some girlfriends about the same age. It won't be too long before they will be married and having children--if they survive the annual lotteries. 

How is the lottery conducted?

There are about three hundred people present for the annual lottery in this town. Everyone is there except a man named Clyde Dunbar who is at home with a broken leg. Everyone without exception is required to participate in the lottery, including little Davy Hutchinson who is only about two years old. There are never any slips with people's names on them. All the slips of paper are totally blank except for one which has a big black spot. Whoever finally ends up drawing that slip will, of course, be stoned to death.

The lottery consists of two rounds. The first drawing is to select the household of the person to be sacrificed. There are about three hundred people present, as the narrator says, but they probably belong to not more than a hundred households at most--possibly as few as around sixty or seventy. (If there was an average of, say, four persons to a household, then there would be seventy-five slips in the box for the first round.) So there would be one slip with a black mark in the black box and fewer than a hundred other slips that were completely blank. The male heads of households are called up by name in alphabetical order by Mr. Summers reading from a list. It turns out that Bill Hutchinson draws the slip with the black mark.

Now there will be a second drawing to determine which member of the Hutchinson household gets stoned to death. What is important here is that Mr. Summers asks his assistant Mr. Graves:

"Harry, you got their tickets back?"

It is obviously essential that all the blank slips be collected from all the heads of households. This is to forestall the possibility that some member of the chosen family might pick up a blank slip and substitute it for the one with the black mark if he or she should draw it.

Harry Graves collects all the blank slips and places four blanks plus the one with the black mark back in the box. Still there are never any names in the box, only the fatal one and four blanks. Tessie is terrified. She begins protesting as soon as her husband shows that he has drawn the black spot, but no one pays her any attention. Even her husband says, "Shut up, Tessie."

There are five members of the Hutchinson household: Bill, Tessie, Bill Jr., Nancy, and little Davy. It is Tessie who draws the fatal slip. If she had been able to get hold of a blank slip someone had tossed away, she seems capable of switching them. But that would disrupt the lottery. Graves knew he put one slip with a big black spot in the box along with four blank ones. They might have to make the Hutchinsons draw all over again, and in that case Tessie might be saved, although her husband or one of her three children would be doomed.

The author describes what happens to all the slips after the first drawing.

Mr. Graves had selected the five slips and put them in the box, and he dropped all the papers but those onto the ground, where the breeze caught them and lifted them off.

Most of the people in the crowd are vastly relieved to see the papers flying away like a flock of little white birds. They are saved for another year because their households were not chosen. But they stay where they are in order to see who in the Hutchinson household will get the slip with the black spot and also in order to participate in the stoning. Approximately two hundred and ninety-nine people will stone one person to death. There would be no chance for any of the Hutchinsons to get hold of one of those other blank slips of paper even if the idea occurred to one of them.

Why are names important?

The author wanted to create the impression of a large gathering of people. She does this by using the word "crowd" repeatedly throughout the story. For example:

The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, "I hope it's not Nancy," and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd.

Jackson also names many names in order to enhance the idea of a crowd. Some of the names are used with variations. For instance, Mr. Summers is also called Joe, and Mrs. Hutchinson is also called Tessie and Tessie Hutchinson. Here is a list of all the names mentioned in the story in order of naming:

Bobby Martin

Harry Jones

Dickie Delacroix

Mr. Martin

Baxter Martin

Joe Summers

Harry Graves

Old Man Warner

Tessie Hutchinson

Mrs. Delacroix

Clyde Dunbar

Mrs. Dunbar

Horace Dunbar

Jack Watson

Steve Adams

Allen Anderson

Bentham Clark

Mr. Delacroix

Harburt

Bill Hutchinson

Jones

Mrs. Adams

Overdyke

Percy

Don

Eva

Bill Hutchinson, Jr.

Nancy Hutchinson

Nancy Hutchinson’s unnamed school girlfriends

Dave Hutchinson

Mrs. Graves

Clyde Dunbar is not present because he is home with a broken leg. But the questions and answers about him help to show that attendance at this ritual is compulsory unless someone has a valid excuse. In other words, it shows that everyone else is present. They can't escape by staying away. Mrs. Dunbar draws for her household in place of her husband.


When Tessie Hutchinson is selected as this year's victim, Old Man Warner helps to create the impression of the entire mass of about three hundred villagers converging on her with stones. He says: "Come on, come on, everyone."


Steve Adams was in front of the crowd of villagers. It is interesting that Steve Adams had just been hinting to Old Man Warner that it might be possible to give up this annual lottery.

"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

Yet Steve Adams is joining Old Man Warner in leading the crowd of Tessie's friends, neighbors and relatives all armed with stones.

Who is Old Man Warner?

In every annual lottery each individual has two chances to escape being stoned to death--with one exception. First there is a drawing to select the household. Second there is a drawing to select the unlucky member of that household. In the case of Old Man Warner, however, he could get selected in the first drawing, assuming that he lives alone and that he is his household. No doubt a great many people in the assembled crowd would be delighted to see Old Man Warner draw the black spot spot on the first round. Not only would they all be saved for another year, but they would all have a chance to get rid of Old Man Warner for good.

How do you think Old Man Warner would have reacted to being chosen? Would he be like Tessie Hutchinson, who kept saying, "It isn't fair"? Or would he complain that he was being discriminated against because he was the only person in his household?

One can imagine Old Man Warner having a quick change of mind about the venerable tradition. He might start haranguing the crowd, telling them: "They say that people in other towns around here are giving up their lotteries. Sounds like a darned good idea. About time, I'd say. Why don't we call this whole thing off right here and now? It's been going on for so long that nobody can even remember what it was for."

The story might end with approximately the same words:

And then they were upon him.

Why are the lotteries in neighboring towns mentioned?

The town has been holding a lottery every year for at least as long as Old Man Warner can remember. This year will make it seventy-seven times in which the good citizens have mercilessly stoned one of their number to death. However, the killings may have been going on for over a century. It seems unlikely that no outsider would have heard about these murders and reported them to the police. Shirley Jackson attempts to account for this plot problem by establishing that all the neighboring townships are doing the same thing every year, although a few may have given up their lotteries and a few others are talking about stopping them.

"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

So the town which serves as setting for "The Lottery" is buffered by all the towns around it. Those other people are well aware that somebody is getting killed there every year, but they would not report it to the police or mention it to any outsider because they are just as guilty themselves. We actually get the picture of a vast region in which all the towns are stoning citizens to death on a regular annual basis. 

Old Man Warner is irate when he responds to Mr. Adams because he knows that the tradition of these death-lotteries is losing popularity, and he enjoys them and looks forward to them. He has escaped so many times that he feels immortal. Maybe he feels that by escaping each year he has been guaranteed another year of life! He probably knows more about the state of affairs in the surrounding region than Mr. Adams or anybody else.

Even if a town officially abolished their annual lottery, the citizens would still keep the other towns' guilt a secret because they would have too many skeletons in their own closets. Some of these towns must have law enforcement officers, but it must be the case that these sheriffs, or policemen, or constables, or whatever they are, are participating in the lotteries and the stonings themselves.

Compare and contrast "The Lottery" and "The Possibility of Evil"

Both of Shirley Jackson's stories, "The Lottery" and "The Possibility of Evil" are about the drawbacks and disadvantages of small-town life. People in small towns are friendly. They all know each other. But this can be a disadvantage. They all have a peculiar small-town mentality. They know who goes to church and who doesn't, and they know which churches people go to. They are all very much class-conscious. They can all turn against one of their fellow citizens for a variety of reasons. If, for example, a man is a heavy drinker, or gets arrested, or beats his wife, everybody in town will know about it. Some people can't stand small-town life with its gossip, its prying, its pettiness, its peer pressure, and its self-appointed aristocrats and tyrants like Miss Strangeworth in "The Possibility of Evil." It is not pleasant for most of us to have everybody knowing everything about our personal affairs. But that is inescapable in really small towns, such as Shirley Jackson depicts in both "The Lottery" and "The Possibility of Evil." In "The Lottery," the total population is right around three hundred. We get the impression that the town in "The Possibility of Evil" is just about the same. She is really putting small towns under her microscope. 

Shirley Jackson lived in San Francisco, a big, cosmopolitan, notoriously tolerant city. This is a clue that she preferred the anonymity of a big city to the enforced intimacy of a small town. Her two stories can be read as a critique of small-town people and small-town life. People in small towns all over America are becoming more sophisticated, and perhaps more liberal and more tolerant, in recent times because of the influence of television, movies, and computers, among other factors. There is probably no longer such a feeling of coziness and claustrophobia that made so many young Americans want to get way out of their hometowns as soon as they were old enough to escape to one of the major cities.

The anxieties of all of us, our worries, vexations, bothers, troubles, fears, exertions, and so on, are really concerned with someone else’s opinion....For the most part, our envy and hatred also spring from the same root.
Now it is obvious that our happiness, resting as it does mainly on peace of mind and contentment, could scarcely be better promoted than by limiting and moderating these motives to reasonable proportions that would possibly be a fiftieth of what they are at present, and thus by extracting from our flesh this thorn that is always causing us pain. Yet this is very difficult, for we are concerned with a natural and innate perversity. Tacitus says: “The thirst for fame is the last thing of all to be laid aside by wise men.” The only way to be rid of this universal folly is clearly to recognize it as such and for this purpose to realize how utterly false, perverse, erroneous, and absurd most of the opinions usually are in men’s minds, which are, therefore, in themselves not worth considering.
-Arthur Schopenhauer