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The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In "The Lottery," how is Tessie Hutchinson's selection in the lottery an example of situational irony?

Situational irony occurs when the outcome of a literary text is contrary to the reader's expectation. Tessie Hutchinson arrives late to the lottery, claiming to have forgotten what day it was, in contrast to the other women who arrived "shortly after their menfolk." The people have to separate to let her through and then "stir back into position," as if she has momentarily disrupted their solidarity. With her relative difference, she seems marked to "win" the lottery. However "winning" this lottery is hardly a victory, as readers begin to understand through the villagers' unease and the Adamses' talk of places that have quitting the lottery. Tessie's protests accelerate readers' dawning understanding of the meaning of the ritual.

What is significant about the description of the black box in "The Lottery"?

The black box is made with "some pieces of the box that had preceded it" when the first settlers arrived in the village. Described as "shabbier each year" it is no longer completely black, it is splintered along one side and in some places faded. The description evokes the box's role in the ritual stoning; its side is splintered, just as the first stone hits Tessie Hutchinson on the side of her head. It also suggests the emptiness of the ritual, which has been repeated since long-ago times even though the only rationale for it at the time the story takes place is vague folklore.

In "The Lottery" is Tessie's concern in protesting the "fairness" of the drawing justified?

Tessie's primary concern is her own survival. Until her family is selected in the first drawing, she goes along with the lottery's traditions, even goading her husband to "Get up there" when his name is called. When her life is threatened, however, she begins to protest the fairness of the drawing, desperately trying to bend the rules to include her married daughter in a perversion of motherly instincts. She repeats the phrase as Mr. Graves returns the five slips for the Hutchinson family to the black box and says "It isn't fair" as the villagers move in on her. Her last words are "It isn't fair, it isn't right." Although Tessie is not really concerned about the fairness of the process—she has participated in the lottery before and now wants only to save her own life—it is, in fact, "fair." As Mrs. Graves says, "All of us took the same chance." Its rightness, of course, is another story, but by the time Tessie says "It isn't right," it is too late for her.

Where is the black box in "The Lottery" kept year-round, and why might it lack a permanent home?

The black box is kept "sometimes one place, sometimes another." It has spent a year in Mr. Graves's barn and another year "underfoot in the post office." Still other times it is "set on a shelf in the Martin grocery and left there." The fact that the box has no permanent place and is often in the way, even when it is in storage, foreshadows the outworn nature of the practice the box represents. The box itself has no importance—it is only used every June 27—yet the villagers invest it with power, refusing to make a new one even though "Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers" about this idea.

In "The Lottery" why does Old Man Warner say "It's not the way it used to be"?

Old Man Warner says "It's not the way it used to be," adding, "People ain't the way they used to be," at the moment at which the Hutchinson family members have chosen a slip but the victim has not yet been revealed. The character stands for tradition and blind adherence to ritual with his words of "warning"—the basis for the character's name. He is reacting to the various ways in which villagers have challenged the ritual: Mr. and Mrs. Adams have both mentioned towns that are talking about, or have already quit, the lottery. Tessie has loudly protested the fairness of the selection process. One of Nancy Hutchinson's friends has expressed her wish that the victim is not Nancy in a whisper that "reache[s] the edges of the crowd." Warner viciously urges the crowd on after Tessie's stoning begins. His words help to perpetuate the denial of individual responsibility among the community's members and allow the lottery to continue.

How do the villagers' silences and pauses increase the dramatic effect of "The Lottery"?

The characters pause before various announcements and turns in the plot. A "sudden hush" takes over the crowd before the lottery begins. There is "a long pause, a breathless pause" before Mr. Summers allows the heads of households to open their slips. As the Hutchinsons prepare to open their slips, the crowd is quiet. The silences indicate that the reader should listen carefully. Silences are often more powerful than dialogue in reinforcing or revealing characters' emotions, thoughts, and motivations; in "The Lottery" they mark reactions to key transitions and events. Each step in the ritual draws the characters closer to its violent, brutal, and inevitable conclusion.

How does mob mentality play a role in "The Lottery"?

The mob mentality that allows the villagers to participate in a cold-hearted murder every year is revealed at first only in glimpses of different groups of characters. For instance, after Bobby Martin stuffs his pockets full of stones the other boys "soon follow his example." The actions of the men are similar as they stand together; so are the women. Mr. and Mrs. Adams then appear to try to break free from the lottery's traditions by questioning its value. Old Man Warner puts them in their place, however, with his firm "There's always been a lottery." The "groupthink" is fully revealed after first the Hutchinson family and then Tessie are selected as victims. Even Bill Hutchinson supports the ritual by telling Tessie to "shut up." Mr. Summers urges the group to "finish quickly," and everyone—down to Tessie's little son, Davy—takes stones to throw. With Old Man Warner urging them on, the crowd "move[s] in on her," and Mr. Adams—who earlier questioned the tradition—lacks the strength to defy the mob and now leads the crowd.

How does Shirley Jackson withhold information from the reader in "The Lottery," and what is the impact?

Throughout the story Jackson gives no more information than the reader needs. Her withholding information keeps the reader on edge and increases the impact of the ending. She doesn't tell readers how the lottery has become an enforced social institution in this town, because the reader doesn't need to know. Perhaps the characters don't even know—an idea that deepens the horror of the outcome. These are people blindly following a deadly ritual without knowing or questioning why they do so. They are locked in the evil tradition of an outdated past and lack the courage to question or end it.

In "The Lottery" why is there a debate over whether Mr. Summers should stand at the front or "walk among the people"?

Mr. Summers conducts the lottery along with other "civic activities." The debate about whether the official should stand at the front or "walk among the people" contributes to the sense of tradition and highlights the importance of having a leader with the psychological strength to carry it out. Mr. Summers, dressed as a clean-cut American in "clean white shirt and blue jeans," conveys just the right mixture of authority and friendliness. His "ritual salute" adds a military image to the religious imagery of the forgotten chant. In the military, as in the village, the common good is prized over the individual good.

How does conformity in "The Lottery" raise questions similar to those surrounding the Salem witch trials?

Conformity in "The Lottery" raises many questions similar to those contemporary readers might ask about the Salem witch trials. During the trials (1692–93), which were characterized by hysteria and word of mouth accusations, citizens, many of whom were women, of colonial Massachusetts were tried and executed for practicing witchcraft. In both the historical and the fictional events, self-deluding humans participated in immoral acts of evil perpetrated by an unjust majority. Like the Salem witch trials, Jackson's story impels the reader to consider questions such as: Are humans innately good or hopelessly corrupt? What does it take before I object to the evil before me?

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