So you’re going to teach Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Shirley Jackson’s short story has been a mainstay of English classrooms for decades. While it confronts challenging topics—hypocrisy, ritualized violence, community-sanctioned killing—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying “The Lottery” will give them insight into symbolism and important themes surrounding the role of ritual, tradition, and the nature of human society. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.
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Facts at a Glance
- Publication Date: June 26, 1948
- Recommended Grade Level: 9–11
- Approximate Word Count: 3, 800
- Author: Shirley Jackson
- Country of Origin: United States
- Genre: Horror, Realism, Allegory
- Literary Period: Modern
- Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society
- Narration: Third-Person Omniscient
- Setting: Mid-20th Century, Small-Town America
- Dominant Literary Devices: Suspense, Situational Irony
- Tone: Observational, Removed, Calm
Texts that Go Well with “The Lottery”
The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are both novels by Shirley Jackson. Published in 1959 and 1962, respectively, both address themes similar to those found in “The Lottery,” particularly the persecution of individuals who don’t conform to social norms. The Haunting of Hill House, a horror story, was a finalist for the National Book Award and is often acclaimed as one of the great ghost stories of the 20th century. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which explores the character of a murderer, was Jackson’s final novel. It is considered her best work by many.
The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry is another futuristic dystopian text set in a black-and-white society in which everything from an individual’s career to their spouse is designated by a central government. The story follows Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy who is selected to carry the collective memories of the community. As Jonas learns to see colors and feel complex human emotions such as love, desire, and grief, he comes to realize how limiting it is to live within the confines of his authoritarian society.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), by Ursula K. Le Guin, is another short story that explores social ethics. Though Le Guin initially describes a peaceful community in the midst of celebration, she goes on to reveal the individual on the lowest rung of society: an isolated, innocent, enfeebled child, whose individual happiness has been sacrificed for the good of the rest of society. A work of social philosophy, the story asks readers to question the moral compromises they are willing to make in order to enjoy the benefits of the social order.
Lord of the Flies (1954), by William Golding, unleashes a group of British schoolboys on a remote island in the South Pacific. By slowly stripping the boys of their civilized tendencies, Golding explores the depths of the human psyche: the instinct to form social order, the inclination toward tyranny, and the willingness to sacrifice the innocent for the sake of social acceptance and protection.
“‘The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force” is a 1974 article by literary critic Helen E. Nebeker. Nebeker responds to critics who argued that Jackson’s use of symbolism in “The Lottery” was ineffective. Nebeker describes the story’s nuanced use of anthropological, historical, and religious symbols and imagery, arguing that they illustrate a truism of the human experience: outdated ritual and tradition can be used to perpetuate atrocities.