Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1337
Theme Revealed Through Symbolism: The sparse style employed in “The Lottery” focuses the reader’s attention on the objects and individuals that Jackson chooses to emphasize in the story. From the items required to conduct the ritual of the lottery itself to the allusive names of the characters living in the small town, symbolism is a key vehicle through which the story considers the often severe role of ritual in human society.
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- For discussion: What physical objects does the town use to conduct and execute the lottery? What abstract ideas do these objects represent?
- For discussion: Does the significance of these objects develop over the course of the text? If so, how? Does these changes in significance suggest any themes in the text?
- For discussion: Consider the names of the different characters in the town. What do their names suggest about their characters? To what extent does each character’s actions and/or dialogue develop in accordance with that expectation?
- For discussion: Ask students to what extent “The Lottery” is an allegory. What does the story suggest about human behavior?
Situational Irony in Small-Town America: The climax of “The Lottery” is shocking because the opening paragraphs successfully establish a quaint, idyllic setting. With its description of a summer holiday in a small, rural American town, the climax stands in stark relief. By using situational irony in such a way, the story reveals one of its primary themes: that ritual and tradition can be used to regulate and rationalize human cruelty.
- For discussion: After reading the first two paragraphs, ask students to consider which details the narrator provides about the setting of the story. What ideas or experiences do these details evoke? What do students predict “The Lottery” will be about?
- For discussion: How do characters rationalize the lottery? What aspects of the small-town setting may or may not necessitate the lottery?
- For discussion: What do the lottery and the subsequent death of Tessie Hutchinson reveal about human nature?
- For discussion: What details do readers learn about the customs and social norms of the town depicted in “The Lottery”? Which characters seem to have power? What gives those characters power? How are social expectations reinforced, and how do characters protest against them?
Suspense Developed Through Characterization: As Tessie Hutchinson grows more and more frantic, readers become increasingly aware that this is not the fun-filled summer day they are expecting. As a prominent horror writer, Jackson uses characterization to build suspense in “The Lottery.”
- For discussion: Describe Tessie’s behavior and dialogue over the course of the story. What does she say and do? What information about her community does she reveal to readers?
- For discussion: How do the other people in the community respond to Tessie? How do their attitudes toward her change over the course of the story?
- For discussion: When does the tone of Tessie’s voice begin to differ from those of the other characters? Why do Tessie and her husband have such different responses to the first round of the lottery?
The Role of Ritual and Tradition: At its center, “The Lottery” addresses the role of ritual and tradition in human societies. Some read the lottery as a means of authorizing human violence and rationalizing savagery, whereas others question whether the lottery controls, or even limits, the human propensity toward violence. Along with works such as Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, “The Lottery” forces readers to consider what cruelties might be masked by traditions.
- For discussion: What value does the lottery hold for the people in the village? Does it carry meaning? Has its meaning changed over time?
- For discussion: In what ways do characters enact and support the lottery? In what ways do characters rebel against it?
- For discussion: Why do the villagers participate in the lottery? Is there any evidence as to what function it serves?
- For discussion: How does the lottery compare or contrast with rituals that students are familiar with in their community or their community’s history?
Portrait of a Community: When read as an allegory, “The Lottery” presents an example of a human society that could exist anytime, anywhere. Readers have the opportunity to examine a complex society in which members are distinguished by age, gender, family ties, and random chance.
- For discussion: How would you describe the village? How is it organized?
- For discussion: Compare and contrast the male and female characters in the story. To what extent is one privileged over the other? To what extent is the village patriarchal in its organization of power?
- For discussion: How does the story depict social class? What effect, if any, do class differences have on the story?
- For discussion: In the town, what are the prominent friendships
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Many think the story reveals reprehensible aspects of human nature. Are there any redemptive aspects of human nature to be found in the story?
- What importance does age carry in “The Lottery”? How does age dictate one’s participation in the lottery?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Story Presents an Ominous View of Human Societies: The shock and horror of a small town engaging in a ritual execution was enough to prompt many to cancel their subscriptions to The New Yorker. Students will likely be shocked and horrified as well!
- What to do: Explain to students that the story illustrates one element of human societies taken to an extreme. It doesn’t depict human societies in their totality. Invite students to consider the society in which they live, finding examples of altruism and beneficence therein.
- What to do: Remind students that human behavior—particularly social behavior— is highly complex. Rarely can events or choices be seen as completely “right” or “wrong.” Invite students to consider the deeper forces that give rise to ritual violence—and how those forces can be redirected to more constructive ends.
The Story is Brutally Violent: “At the story’s culmination, readers are faced with the image of Tessie Hutchinson’s brutal execution. She is bludgeoned to death by her husband, children, friends, and neighbors.
- What to do: Remind students that violence is part of the human experience. Discuss relevant examples of violence from their learning and their lived experiences. Be sure to look for relevant examples of individuals working for peace and kindness as well.
- What to do: Invite students to think creatively and revise the story. What could different individuals have done to prevent the lottery’s morbid end? Are there any circumstances in which Tessie Hutchinson survives?
The Story Requires Inferential Reading: Much of the nuance in “The Lottery” is established through symbolism, allegory, and allusions, devices with which students may or may not be familiar.
- What to do: Expose students to multiple understandings of the text, modeling insightful interpretations of figurative elements.
- What to do: Use this discussion as an opportunity to provide direct instruction as to the use of symbolism, allegory, and allusion in literature.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Lottery"
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the story.
- Focus on the structure of a short story. "The Lottery" is consistently included among the best short stories of the 20th century. Invite students to study Jackson’s style, craft, and contribution to the literary canon. Discuss how the structure of the story produces its signature suspense.
- Focus on peer pressure. Why does each individual in the village turn on Tessie Hutchinson? How important is peer pressure to each character’s decision to turn on her? Invite students to consider the function of peer pressure in the story, comparing it to their own experiences.
- Focus on the natural elements. What role does nature play in the story? How does it affect the behavior of the community? How do individuals use nature to their own ends?