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The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the effect of the description of the weather and scenery in the first sentence of "The Lottery"?

The narrator describes the weather on the morning of the lottery as "clear and sunny," with "fresh warmth," and says flowers are"blossoming profusely" and the grass is "richly green." While the details suggest a picturesque rural setting, on a closer examination—or on a second reading—they are bland and generic. For example, there is no description of the type of flowers blooming. The opening sentence has two effects. It establishes situational irony by giving a horrific event a "sunny" setting. The ordinariness of the setting also suggests that the lottery, a ritual that represents a perversion of human nature, could take place anywhere.

In "The Lottery" what is the significance of the fact that the townspeople pronounce Dickie Delacroix's name "Dellacroy"?

The villagers have corrupted the French pronunciation of the name "Delacroix," which means "of the cross," to conform to their own phonetics. The inclusion of this detail heightens the sense of the townspeople's narrow-mindedness and adherence to a pagan harvest ritual: the corrupted pronunciation removes both the foreignness and the Christian roots of the name Delacroix. In a similar way, with the lottery, the villagers have established a distance between the Christian tradition of martyrdom and the mindlessly evil tradition they perpetuate. In fact the lottery's victim, Tessie, laughs with Mrs. Delacroix as she joins the crowd. Then, after Tessie "wins" the lottery, Mrs. Delacroix picks up a stone "so large she had to pick it up with both hands" to use to murder her friend.

How is the black spot on the slip of paper drawn by Tessie Hutchinson in "The Lottery" an example of wordplay?

The black spot signifies that Tessie is the "winner," or sacrificial victim, of the lottery. It has been made the night before "with the heavy pencil in the coal company office." A black spot made with a writing instrument ends a written sentence; in this case, the black spot is Tessie's death sentence and signals her impending doom. It is made in the office of a coal company; coal is used to make fire, evoking an image of the fires of hell. Black spots also signal disease. For example, a flower disease is called "black spot," and black spots can signal mold, or decay. The black spot on the slip of paper Tessie draws from the black box shows the corruption of the villagers and their lottery.

How do the roles of Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves foreshadow the ending of "The Lottery"?

Mr. Summers is described as a pleasant man who is "round-faced and jovial," like an affable town patriarch. He conducts pleasant activities that include square dances, the teen club, and the Halloween program because he has the "time and energy to devote to civic activities." The narrator mentions that he is "very good" at the ritual of his officiant job, which involves speaking to each lottery participant and calling them by name. He has also been successful in updating some of the rituals, such as substituting the slips of paper in the black box for chips of wood. Yet however vested Mr. Summers might be in the lottery, it is the postmaster, Mr. Graves—who, when he greets Mr. Summers to select his slip, does so "gravely"—who swears Mr. Summers in. The ultimate authority in the lottery is death, represented by graves.

In "The Lottery," why is it significant that the "recital" performed by the official has changed over the years?

The "recital" has changed from being a "perfunctory, tuneless chant" that the official "rattled off" while standing "just so," possibly as he walked among the people. But the narrator tells us, "years and years ago" this part of the ritual has been allowed to lapse, along with a ritual salute. The changes are significant because the trappings of the ritual have changed to accommodate the growing village population and in a nod to modernity, signaling a willingness to change. However the purpose of the lottery remains unaltered, as if this purpose is the one untouchable sacred aspect of the ritual. As the narrator says, "Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual ... they still remembered to use stones."

How does "The Lottery" compel readers to both suspend their disbelief and make a judgment about what is believable?

The story requires a suspension of disbelief to accept that a lottery like the one Jackson describes could exist in a contemporary, "civilized" village. The ordinariness of the village, with its grocer, postmaster, and town square, and its families chatting and gossiping, lulls the reader into this state of suspended disbelief. The conclusion, however, compels readers to make a judgment about what is believable. As hard as it might be to accept the existence of this lottery, the story was written just a few years after the Nuremberg trials exposed the horrors of the Holocaust. An understanding of history forces the reader to ask disturbing questions about the human capability for violence and evil.

In "The Lottery" how does the first lottery drawing build tension and anticipation?

Suspense builds as the lottery progresses. The narrator lingers on certain scenes to show their importance, but the reader does not yet understand why the scenes are important. For example, an entire paragraph is devoted to the attention the children pay to the stones: one child has "already stuffed his pockets full of stones," others select "the smoothest and roundest stones," and still others make a "great pile of stones in one corner of the square." Another paragraph is devoted to the history of the black box, which represents a tradition "no one liked to upset." The reactions of the crowd help to build the tension. "A sudden hush" consumes the crowd when Mr. Summers begins the first lottery drawing. Men are anxious as they approach the black box. Mrs. Dunbar wishes they'd hurry. Old Man Warner defends the lottery to people he sees as detractors. The reader also hears Mr. Summers call many names; Jackson prolongs the scene, so readers must wait, much like the townspeople in the audience, to learn its outcome.

Why do community members support the Watson boy in "The Lottery"?

With no male figure in the Watson family, the Watsons' oldest son is drawing slips from the black box for himself and his mother. This experience marks a coming-of-age rite for him, since being eligible to draw in the first round of a lottery shows that a boy has become a man in the town. When someone says, "Don't be nervous, Jack," and Mr. Summers says, "Take your time, son," the townspeople appear to appreciate the awful toll this task takes on everyone and to feel compassion for the boy. For a moment in the text, the townsfolk have hearts. However they have lost a sense of themselves as people worthy of compassion. They have given in to a ritual that they challenge only nominally, as when Mr. Adams tells Old Man Warner that "over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery." (Old Man Warner retorts, "Nothing but trouble in that.")

What is the impact of the politeness and civility that community members show in "The Lottery"?

There are numerous examples of the politeness and civility of the townspeople. The crowd parts "good-humoredly" to let Tessie Hutchinson through when she's late, and Mrs. Delacroix mentions that she's still on time. The townspeople call each other by their first names. The greetings Mr. Summers exchanges with each participant reinforce the town's display of polite exchanges and good manners. The civility appears deeply disturbing when viewed in light of the lottery's result, as the entire community turns on Tessie to stone her to death. The villagers' politeness and civility is a false veneer; their manners are as empty as their ritual.

In "The Lottery" why does Old Man Warner mention that it's his 77th year taking part?

For Old Man Warner the longevity of his participation is a statement of pride. Due to his age he believes he's reached the status of a venerated member of the community; he is a staunch defender of the lottery and says it keeps people from "living in caves." Old Man Warner has also taken his chances in the lottery for 77 years and has not been selected for death. His evasion of death is an impressive, if fortuitous, accomplishment that could possibly feed his blind adherence to the empty ritual. He represents the dangers of group thought and its easy evasion of personal responsibility.

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