Analysis and interpretation of Shirley Jackson`s The Lottery

Seminar Paper, 2000

13 Pages

Free online reading


1. Introduction

2. Biographical notes

3. Stylistic analysis

4. Interpretation

5. Closing commentary

6. Bibliography

1. introduction

Never has there been a story that impacted the world without shocking it first. Shirley Jackson wrote just such a creation that had the world cry out in outrage - AND is as relevant for my personal daily perception of the world as hardly any other piece of literature that I know. Not only does it touch upon topics I care and think about a lot, but it has a very appealing undertone to me and is worthwhile being taken a closer look at.

2. biographical notes

Throughout her life, Shirley Jackson struggled with a conflict between her dogged individuality and society's requirement to adhere to its norms and standards. Jackson saw a second level of human nature, an inner identity lurking beneath the one which outwardly conforms with society's expectations. Society's repression of her individuality haunted Jackson in her personal life and expressed itself in her writing through the opposition of two levels of reality, one magical and one mundane, but both equally real.

All of the various dichotomies that make up Jackson's double-sided reality can be traced to the hidden human nature, the repressed individual she saw within each of us.

From an early age, Jackson did not feel completely comfortable in the society around her. She preferred to sit in her room and write poetry rather than play with the other children in her neighborhood (Oppenheimer 1988:16). Alone in her room, Jackson explored the magical worlds, the alter-egos which her family did not understand. „I will not tolerate having these other worlds called imaginary, she insisted“ (Oppenheimer 1988: 21). Jackson did not satisfy her mother, a wealthy socialite who wanted her daughter to be beautiful and popular and was disturbed by her talk of „other worlds." Relations between Jackson and her mother were tense throughout her life, paralleling the conflict between Jackson and the society in which she found no place for herself. Jackson's mother wrote to her once that „you were always a willful child" (Oppenheimer 1988: 14). This careless statement captures Jackson's stubborn assertion of her individuality, as well as her mother's disapproval.

To cut a long biography short: Her schizophrenic life as a caring mother on the one hand and as an excessive writer on the other - and in this order - plus the mentioned fact, that she was little compatible with society did not give her an harmonic life in the village she had lived in since 1945. People in North Bennington/Vermont are said to having hated, avoided and feared her for her outbursts, when she sensed injustice to her children at school for instance. A legend about Jackson says, that she was pelt with rocks by kids in her village, which supposedly looked a lot like the one described in „The Lottery“, went home, sat down and wrote that story.

So it was in 1948 that her greatest success was achieved. The publication of this short story, „The Lottery", brought fame all over the country. Many consider it the most controversial piece of literature ever published in „The New Yorker“. The magazine was bombed with letters for weeks after the publication and subscriptions to the magazine were cancelled. Many reader complained about this violent and senseless story, while others praised it as a brilliant moral allegory. A year later a book entitled, „The Lottery", was published containing an assortment of short stories including „The Lottery", which was later adapted for television, into play form and even for ballet. It is part of the American general education.

Jackson published at least forty-four short stories, six articles, two book-length family chronicles, one children's nonfiction book and four novels.

3. stylistic analysis

The lottery begins happily: „clear and sunny, with [the] fresh warmth of a fullsummer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green" (Jackson 1948: 674). Such a beginning lures the unwary reader into a comfortable lull. The villagers are ordinary people in an ordinary town. Pleasant, friendly and simple, the men talk about „tractors and taxes"(ebd.) while the boys run around piling up stones. It begins as the perfect day to be alive.

The setting set forth by Shirley Jackson in the beginning of „The Lottery“ creates a mood of peacefulness and tranquillity. This setting creates an image in the mind of the reader of a typical town on a normal summer day.

With the very first words Jackson begins to establish her plot‘s environment.

To begin, she tells the reader what time of day and what time of year the story takes place. This is important to get the reader to focus on what a typical day it is in this small town. The time of day is set in the morning and the time of year is early summer. She also mentions that school has just recently let out for summer break, which of course allows the children to run around at that time of day. The town is one of any normal rural community. Furthermore, she describes the grass as „richly green" and that „the flowers were blooming profusely"(ebd.). These descriptions of the surroundings give the reader a serene felling about the town. Also, this makes the reader feel comfortable about it as if there was nothing wrong in this quaint town. Jackson puts in perspective the location of the square „between the post office and the bank" (ebd.). This visualizes for the reader what a small town this is, since everything seems to be centralized at or near the town square. This is also key in that the town square is the location for the remaining part of the story. The town square is an important location for the setting since the ending of the story will take place there. Also, Shirley Jackson maintains the comfortable atmosphere while introducing the residents of the town. First, she describes the children assembling and breaking into „boisterous play"(ebd.). She lets appear the men as gathering together and talking about „planting and rain, tractors and taxes"(ebd.). Finally, she describes the women of this community as „exchanging bits of gossip"(ebd.) which is a common stereotype.

Again, she creates a mood for the reader of small-town-residents on a normal summer morning.

Up to this point in the story Shirley Jackson has not pointed out anything out of the ordinary which would reflect an ironic ending. Upon further reading of the story, Shirley Jackson gives the reader small hints about the unusualness of this town. She points out key buildings that surround the town square, but fails to describe a church or a courthouse which are common buildings to all communities. This way there seems to be no governing body for this town such as a court or a police station. Also, it is odd for these people to celebrate Halloween but not Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving. These are the largest holidays that "normal" people celebrate, whereas Halloween implicates a certain proneness to shady activities. In addition, she points out the fact that the children are building "a great pile of stones in one corner of the square"(ebd.). She allows the impression of the children as normal children gathering rocks, yet they create a massive pile of stones in one corner, as if they are working and are not gathering these rocks for enjoyment as most children would. ‚Child’s play‘ as the reason for that also gets undermined by their clearly goal- directed acting.

In contrast to the first paragraph these points might shake the reader’s belief into an intact world and make him consider that this town is not quite normal. The introduction of the black box then is the obvious key turning point for the setting. The black box symbolizes an immoral act to the villagers. This is evident in the fact that „the villagers kept their distance"(ebd.) from the black box. The introduction of the black box into the setting changes the mood and the atmosphere of the residents. After the introduction of the black box the villagers become uneasy around it. Furthermore, the black box is the key that changes the mood from serene and peaceful to ominous, whereas the moment of illumination is put at the very end of the story and of the plot. Typically enough, Jackson’s development of the plot is rather traditional and straight with little foreshadowing and negligible backflashing. Through this use of only subtle details, Shirley Jackson is able to foreshadow the wicked ending on an ‚emotional basis‘ - in parts through the setting, that lacks official authorities, the incoherent mentioning of stones and the plot striving straight at the end and climax of some kind of lottery: keeping us in suspense by itself already. Indeed the reader starts to feel more and more uncomfortable, whereas the commonplace attitude of the townspeople remains even during the stoning of Mrs. Hutchinson. They are unaffected by the out come except for the victim of their collaborate murder. Indeed, near the end, one of the women casually tells the victim to be a „good sport"(Jackson 1948: 678) as they slaughter her with stones. Nevertheless, Jackson places the village into the reader’s time, most likely in the U.S., makes it very Verisimilitude. We find a third person narrator staying in the background very much, completely unintrusive and in spite of his omniscient point of view he maintains an completely unobtrusive tone throughout the entire story. In spite of that and the peaceful mood created about the town everyone commits a brutal act by stoning an innocent person. This paradox paves the way for a deeper interpretation.

4. interpretation

Jackson gives very plain, solid-sounding names to her characters: Adams, Warner, Dunbar, Martin, Hutchinson, etc.

„The name Mr. Summers is particularly suitable for sunny, jovial Joe Summers; it emphasizes the surface tone of the piece and underscores the ultimate irony. Mr. Graves - the postmaster and the assistant to Mr. Summers in the administration of the lottery - has a name that might well signify the tragic undercurrent, which does not become meaningful until the end of the story."(Friedman 1975: 64) Oehlschlaeger explains the meaning behind the name Hutchinson: „The name of Jackson's victim links her to Anne Hutchinson, whose Antinomian beliefs, found to be heretical by the Puritan hierarchy, resulted in her banishment from Massachusetts in 1638. While Tessie Hutchinson is no spiritual rebel, to be sure, Jackson's allusion to Anne Hutchinson reinforces her suggestions of a rebellion lurking within the women of her imaginary village."(1988: 261).

Since Tessie Hutchinson is the protagonist of „The Lottery" there is every indication that her name is indeed an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, the American religious dissenter. She was excommunicated despite an unfair trial, while Tessie questions the tradition and correctness of the lottery as well as her humble status as a wife. It might as well be this insubordination that leads to her selection by the lottery and lynching by the angry mob of villagers.

Whereas I’m going to elaborate the name „Adams“ later on, the 77-time participant „Old Warner“ is the representative of the story‘s most striking concept: How man sticks to tradition even though it may be irrational and all sense of logic may be lost. „The Lottery" is a tale about a ritual that is performed annually, but no one really knows why. Warner‘s corny line about „Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon"(Jackson 1948: 677) brings in ideas about earthly fertility and such, but since I doubt whether anyone in the tale actually believes that, his „warning“ attitude against any scrutinizing of the ritual is even more important. Because there is already an undercurrent of suspicion and fear lurking ... but it's a fear of breaking away from the tradition.

No one even remembers how the lotteries started. „The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago" and „so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded"(Jackson, 1948: 675) show this clearly. And even though Warner keeps saying things such as times „not [being] the way [they] use to be," and how „people ain't the way they used to be"(Jackson 1948: 679), he never once explains or defines just how they used to be.

One probable answer being that he does not remember it but knows only that he has such desires for the past since he has already survived it for seventy-seven lotteries.

It is human nature to cling on to the past. Unfortunately, clinging on to the past leaves no room for progress even when it is necessary. How does the habit of following outdated traditions get justified in the story then?

If it’s not reason then it could for instance be a physical object that keeps us connected to a tradition, rather than any real coherent meaningful idea? The strongest symbol in the story is the lottery box. It is painted black for death, stained (probably with blood), and worn-out. The box itself represents the bloody, out-dated tradition of the lottery, yet even though it is worn out, people are hesitant in replacing the box (representative of the tradition) for something more appropriate. They even refuse to fix or readjust the box although it is not the original black box (Jackson 1948: 679).

Then there is the marker ballots in the lottery box: paper and wood chips. Mr. Summers had to fight to replace the wood chips for paper. The original markers, being wood chips, hints that the traditions began during a preliterate time (Nebeker 1974: 228). That the people were insecure about changing to a more efficient substance, or a new container, shows their distrust of progress. They would rather hold on to the preliterate origin.

The lottery box is placed on a three-legged stool. The stool possibly being reminiscent of stools that were kicked from under victims who stood on them while a noose was tied around their necks. This, too, shows their yearning for the past and is another symbol referring to other forms of archaic and municipal lynch law. However, in this case, keeping the stool seems to be an announcement of the pride in having killed all those lottery ‚winners‘. Otherwise, one would think that a decorative table on the platform would be a more respectable object for such a revered ritual.

Another possible answer to Warner’s wistful „people ain't the way they used to be"(Jackson 1948: 679) is the probable change of the attitude of the lottery's ‚winner‘. What seems ironic today, was very true when the lottery began. Back then, when people understood the ritual fully, a person would be proud in being he who saves the village from the angry gods and appease them with his life so that his people would have a good harvest and eat. His family would be honored and cared for.

Today, however, that ideal and attitude is different out of ignorance. People today do not understand the ritual, and what is left is only the pitiful imitation and illusion of keeping their heritage. It is very illogical and in their pretense of being civilized and remembering their past, they are doom to never actually become enlightened. The people who forgot the significance of the ceremony yet holding on it opens another possible interpretation. They have made the bloody ritual a masquerade for their selfishness of wanting a scapegoat. Beneath all of the trappings of civilizations, man continues searching for scapegoats and thus their innate savagery shines though. „This story comments upon the all-too-human tendency to seize upon a scapegoat and to visit upon the scapegoat the cruelties that most of us seem to have dammed up within us"(Brooks et al. 1995: 224). This is clearly portrayed by many of the characters in „The Lottery." Mrs. Delacroix brightly greets her friend Mrs. Hutchinson and then within the hour enthusiastically encourages Mrs. Dunbar to come and stone Mrs. Hutchinson to death. Mrs. Hutchinson, upon discovering that her husband had the black dotted ballot, started blaming anywhere she could. The ballot wasn't conducted fairly - her husband was rushed. Everyone else, however, enthused that it was fair because it was in his or her self-interest to proclaim that it was. As long as it's not the individual or their family, every lottery is fair. Mrs. Hutchinson herself was a willing and enthusiastic participant when it wasn't her family faced with the stoning. And she goes even farther in her selfishness than that. She pleads to have her daughter and son-in-law in the family drawing so that her chances for survival would be better. Then her own children „beamed and laughed"(Jackson 1948: 679) when they revealed that they did not have the black dot even though they were old enough to understand that someone in their family was definitely going to be dead that day. They give no care whatsoever: they are safe, thus they are happy, and so they laugh. It is safe to assume that only the victim would realize the inhumanity of the annual lottery drawing tradition. And that only because of their selfishness in wanting to survive, preferring someone else to die. Not the only hint to mankind’s primal attitude: “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual [...], they still remembered to use stones”(ebd.), with which the author expressly works out human nature underneath institutions of civilization. Furthermore, children and childishness appear as metaphors for individuals liberated from the single, ordinary reality imposed by society. Jackson shows that children, who do not understand the difference between right and wrong, have not yet been indoctrinated with society's values and so express the uninhibited cruelty and abnormality of human nature. Like Jackson's children, the children in the story must be taught the mores of their society. In „The Lottery" fitting in to the village society means blindly following tradition and accepting the yearly lottery despite its horrible consequences. Again the children are the first to gather for the ritual, piling stones as if they were playing a game without understanding why. As the villagers begin to attack the victim of the lottery, „the children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles"(Jackson 1948: 680). Davy, the son of the victim, is apparently too young to understand that he must help kill his mother, so the adults show him what he must do. Children are presented as blank slates ready to learn to live in society.

But the children never learn anything better. They are taught to be just like everyone else, to conform to everyone else. And those lessons are ingrained into their personalities. It is a chilling act of the story at the end where someone hands little Davy pebbles to stone his mother. However, that is not the most shocking part. The shocking part is his silence. He does not protest hurting his mother at all. There is seemingly no love in this town, not even that of a mother and child. If Davy is the average child, then all children in the village learn to turn their backs on everyone else except themselves. When people are used to being selfish, it is nearly impossible to better a community since no one is willing to sacrifice him or herself. It is well done that even though Jackson revealed these depressing depictions, she was careful to incorporate the most fragile thread of hope:

The Adams and the Dunbars. The name „Adams" is symbolic of Adam and Eve in their purity. It was they who spoke up about other towns that have given up the lottery. Their mention of it to such a contrary crowd suggests that they see the evil in this practice and disapprove. Then there is Mrs. Dunbar who, although only had small stones in her hands said that she could not keep up. Mrs. Dunbar was the only woman that drew for her family. There was a specific point where Mr. Summers had to officially ask if she had a son that could take her husband's place when „the village knew the answer perfectly well"(Jackson 1948: 676). This innuendo suggests that her son was probably last year's victim and throws shadows upon whether her husband's broken leg was really an accident or a self inflicted wound in his agony of a lost son on the anniversary of his death (Nebeker 1974:

228). If that is so then perhaps not all the village is as shallow and apathetic as Jackson had originally portrayed it. If this family realizes that the lottery is wrong to the point where Mr. and Mrs. Dunbar refuses to participate in their diplomatic way, then there may be other families that realize the same thing also.

One would automatically hope for this change in „The Lottery“‘s fictional community, because the ritual of stoning people to death has been banned from real life. Placing it back into the reader‘s sociological background unfortunately admits the conclusion of a rather devastating statement by the author: Ordinary people of the modern world would very happily turn malicious, violent, and cruel when they are able to use their traditions to hide their dark, savage natures (Hicks 1990: 211). The tradition of stoning is a very well picked example by Jackson.

While people like to imagine that they have surpassed their animal instincts, their inhumanity is apparent when they will gang up on a single individual using a lie to justify their slaughter. That lie being that the death of the singled out person would be for the good of all. Set in the modern day that „The Lottery" is in, such a death serves but one purpose: fulfilling the blood lust in individuals. (During this point, an animal is actually more humane than the men who are perpetuating such a violent action such as stoning. The animal kills to eat while the man murders for either dominance or sport in his heart.)

But it doesn't stop there, not with stoning. With stoning, men do not even have to take the guilt for their blood lust. It is a community activity where, while there is someone executed, there is no executioner (Janeway 1966: 212). No one is guilty and murder is excepted and celebrated yearly in those quiet villages that hold the lotteries.

The village is set in the modern day; however, it is still a completely patriarchal society. Gender rolls are firmly set. We hear the men talking about „tractors and taxes"(Jackson 1948: 674) showing that they are likely solid farmers. The women are introduced only after the men. Moreover, their first appearance to the reader is that they were all wearing house dresses and following „shortly after their menfolk"(ebd.). When Mrs. Hutchinson comes running late all the men are sure to mention her to her husband before conversing with her. This is suggestive of how males might be respectful in not treading in the fellow male's domain. There seems to be no chance for a change either. Even the children display their gender roles. When the boys are playing and gathering piles of stones, the girls stand out of their way and watch. In a certain perspective, one could say that the stones symbolize money that the boys will need to gather, hoard, and fight for when they are grown up. Girls have to stay out of the way since their role cannot be soiled with working among an economic world (Kosenko 1985: 228). Gender roles are so clearly defined in the village that not even age makes a boy respectful to a female. „Bobby Martin ducked under his mother's grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly and took his place between his father and his oldest brother"(Jackson 1948: 674). The sharp contrasts between Bobby's obedience for each parent and also that he „took his place"(ebd.) among the adult males of his family instead of besides his mother deepens the chasm of gender roles. Modern society ideally has a fairness and equality between the sexes. The village of „The Lottery" shows none of this equality or modern attitude and is primary the primitive patriarchal society.

Throughout the story, a complex social structure is revealed. Peter Kosenko writes, "[The] most powerful men who control the town, economically as well as politically, also happen to administer the lottery"(1985: 226). The villagers subscribe to a strict convention of gender roles. Even the rules of the lottery itself favor a woman who knows her place and has borne several children; in a large family, each person has less of a chance of being chosen (Oehlschlaeger 1988: 268). Kosenko describes Tessie's defiance as follows:

„Tessie's rebellion begins with her late arrival at the lottery, a faux that raises suspicions of her resistance to everything the lottery stands for. [...] When Mr. Summers calls her family's name, Tessie goads her husband, ‚Get up there, Bill.‘ In doing so, she inverts the power relation [...] between husbands and wives [...]. Her final faux pas is to question the rules of the lottery which relegate women to inferior status as the property of their husbands“ (1985: 228).

Thus, Tessie's stoning is more than just the fulfillment of a ritual. The villagers are punishing Tessie for heresy in an event not unlike the Salem Witch trials.

5. closing commentary

Jackson does not end her story with a resolution of the plot; instead, a dramatic incident or revelation serves to illustrate the irony she sees in the world. Therefore, she takes pains to describe a village of hard-working, upstanding Americans. Each of the villagers speaks of the lottery reverently, and it is implicitly compared to such decent and American activities as „the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program"(Jackson 1948: 674).

She scents the evil in ordinary things, which is why she places mythic tales of scapegoats and ‚witch-burnings‘ in modern America creating poignant criticism of for one thing her society's sexism. Also the concept of a ‚lottery‘ gets turned upside down: Since the story was written following WWII, it might as well reflect the military draft. If your number comes up, you may not be the winner. But it remains the pursuit of something better, something more. Jackson's fictional characters risked their lives for the lottery; we just risk 5 Marks, the chance that we might lose. Because even the thought of winning is worth it, and suffering, in all its varying degrees, is part of being human. After all there is no obligation to stay in the village and take the chance of being next.

Thinking this on the level of society, all of us are in the pool. And every death penalty or lifelong sentence is a tribute to a homogeneous society, where stable living-conditions of the majority rule over the freedom and lives of a few ‚misfits’. Nowadays the people, communities and countries who share and define these values of the majority benefit from the death penalties just as the villagers hope to improve next year’s harvest.

Male and female, child and adult, individual and communal: all these dichotomies express Shirley Jackson's theme of a hidden reality beneath the surface of our everyday lives. The subtle way she manages to infiltrate and entertain us within one story makes it a masterpiece to me. Her use of irony in this story was so effective that the publication of „The Lottery" by The New Yorker in 1948 provoked the mentioned unprecedented torrent of mail partially from readers believing that the ritual described in the story was factual and demanding to know where it was practiced.

6. Bibliography

Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren (1995). „Shirley Jackson: ‚The Lottery.'" Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Christopher Giroux. Vol. 87. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Inc.

Jackson, Shirley (1948). „The Lottery." Lives and Moments: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Hans Ostrom. Chicago, Illinois: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1991

Janeway, Elizabeth (1966). „The Grotesque Around Us". The New York Times Book Review. 9 October 1966.

Friedman, Lenemaja (1975). Shirley Jackson. Twayne Publishers: Boston.

Hicks, Granville (1990). „The Nightmare in Reality." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Matuz. Vol. 60. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Inc.

Kosenko, Peter (1984). „A Marxist/Feminist Reading of Shirley Jackson's ‚The Lottery' ." The New Orleans Review. Spring 1985.

Nebeker, Helen (1974). „ 'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force" Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Matuz. Vol. 60. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Inc., 1990.

Oehlshlaeger, Fritz (1988). „The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning of Context in ‚The Lottery'." Essays in Literature. No. 2, Fall, 1988.

Oppenheimer, Judy (1988). Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York: Putnam.

13 of 13 pages


Analysis and interpretation of Shirley Jackson`s The Lottery
Seminar "American Short Fiction 1900 - 1999"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
356 KB
Analysis, Shirley, Jackson`s, Lottery, Seminar, American, Short, Fiction
Quote paper
Christoph Breitsprecher (Author), 2000, Analysis and interpretation of Shirley Jackson`s The Lottery, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Analysis and interpretation of Shirley Jackson`s The Lottery

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free