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The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | Context


War, Communism, and Anxiety

In the wake of the Nuremberg trials (1945–46, in post-World War II Germany) and the growing critical examinations of the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, communities worldwide struggled with the well-documented suffering of civilian populations in World War II; the horrors of man's inhumanity were never closer to everyday consciousness. Among the popular accounts were Life Magazine's 1945, large format photos of the condition of the inmates at the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, and John Hersey's Hiroshima, published in The New Yorker in 1946 and taking up the whole issue. On succeeding days in 1948, the United Nations passed the genocide convention, which defined genocide and the crimes that could be punished under the convention.

At the same time, America was immersed in new conflicts stirred up by past fears. The Cold War had started; this period of nonviolent political hostility between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union was linked to the Western powers' fear of the growth of weapons of mass destruction. The Red Scare had also begun—the belief that agents of communism or radical socialism sympathetic to Russia lived in the United States, working to subvert democracy. In the United States loyalty oaths were demanded of federal employees; Communist sympathizers were scouted; friends turned against friends and neighbors. In "The Lottery," some see an example of the atmosphere of paranoia that afflicted close-knit communities during that time. In the preface to The Magic of Shirley Jackson, a collection of three of Jackson's novels and 11 of her short stories, the writer's husband specifically cited the long shadow of the concentration camps and the atom bomb as incitement to horror in her works.


As a means of raising money, enforcing shared values, and promoting community spirit, a lottery is a practice as old as the Roman Empire and common in America since colonial times. In "The Lottery" the unnamed village is isolated by a reliance on tradition even as other towns have given up the practice. For the early readers of the story, a life and death lottery in a small, rural village struck, apparently, very close to where they lived. According to Jackson in the essay "Biography of a Story," many readers "wanted to know ... where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch." No doubt such responses confirmed Jackson's sense of the potential violence in our uncritical impulses to belong to the crowd, a prominent theme in "The Lottery."

Shocked, Bewildered Readers

The editors of The New Yorker requested that the date of the lottery—June 27—match the date of the story's publication, and Jackson agreed. Later she recalled picking up her mail on June 28, 1948, "never supposing it was the last time for months that I was to pick up mail without an active feeling of panic."

Hundreds of readers canceled their New Yorker subscriptions in protest over the story, angry that the magazine would publish such a disturbing piece. Over 300 readers, a record for The New Yorker, wrote to the magazine; only 13 were supportive. Most of the letter writers simply didn't understand the story. Others inquired if the rituals described in the story really happened. Even Jackson's family was appalled. The story remains one of the most controversial and well-known pieces The New Yorker has published.

Though readers sought ancient parallels to the story, Jackson preferred to let the work speak for itself. When a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle asked Jackson about the meaning of "The Lottery," Jackson said an explanation was difficult. "I suppose, I hoped ... to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." She would receive letters about the story for the rest of her life.

The New Yorker's stock response to readers said "The Lottery" was "just a fable" with many possible interpretations. The editors explained that the story was meant to show "how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional."

A Complicated Legacy

"The Lottery" has been adapted many times for television, film, and the stage. Some variants add new characters or follow existing characters. The 1951 radio broadcast explored Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson's feelings about the lottery and added a new character, a schoolteacher, who protested the ritual. A 1996 film adaptation picked up the story of Mrs. Hutchinson's son after her death. In 1953 "The Lottery" was made into a ballet, a transformation Jackson called "completely mystifying." Satirical television shows in the 21st century, such as South Park and The Simpsons, have also adapted the well-known plot. The story continues to exemplify the darkness, plot twists, and psychological horror in Jackson's work as a whole.

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