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The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Why does Jackson include so many children in "The Lottery"?

The inclusion of children shows that the future of the lottery is ensured. Because the children of the village grow up with the belief that stoning a neighbor to death once a year is perfectly normal, they are likely to perpetuate the tradition. Although they do not seem to contemplate their own mortality as they gleefully gather and defend their piles of stones, the children are well aware of the stones' purpose; after Tessie is selected as the victim, "The children had stones already." Very small children participate in the lottery, raising the grisly idea that Davy Hutchinson, who is described as "little" six times, could as well have been the victim as his mother. Instead someone gives him "a few pebbles" to participate in her murder.

How do Mr. and Mrs. Adams represent the potential for change in "The Lottery"?

Mr. and Mrs. Adams are the only characters who bring up the idea of quitting the lottery. While they don't suggest that their town end the lottery, perhaps from fear of being ostracized, they both mention towns that are talking of giving up the lottery or have done so already. On one hand readers can tell from the Adamses' dialogue that this village is not the only one to hold the lottery. Readers encountering the story in 1948 would undoubtedly have been reminded of the many citizens who betrayed Jews to the Nazis in World War II; when "everyone does it," a horrific act becomes normalized. On the other hand the characters' dialogue raises the possibility that at some future time the lottery might stop if brave citizens stand up against it. Unfortunately for Tessie Hutchinson, that time has not yet come.

How does "The Lottery" introduce issues of bystanders' consent to and permission for cruelty?

Each person in the town actively participates in the stoning of Mrs. Hutchinson, so none of them are technically bystanders by the end. In the middle of the process, however, they all take on the role of bystanders—observers who may do nothing to perpetuate the event, but do nothing to stop it either. "The Lottery" asks if not perpetuating cruelty is sufficient to define a moral person. Do citizens have a duty to speak up, or should they simply refrain from participating in acts they don't agree with? All the townspeople take part in the lottery. Presumably they will do so the following year. None of them, even the children, are innocent. Their willing, unquestioning participation makes the act even more horrific.

How does "The Lottery" consider the concept of free will versus conformity?

The villagers appear to participate by consensus. No one is shown physically forcing them to go to the town square and join the lottery. They all gather anyway with Mr. Summers as their unquestioned leader. However despite their apparent unease—and the fact that other towns have given up the lottery—the community continues the tradition as if they had no other choice. Mrs. Hutchinson remembers the date and comes "a-running." Mr. Summers say they have to "get this over with" and "get done in time" as if they have a moral obligation to go through with the ritual. The implication is that the town could stop having a lottery any time it wanted to, but through the force of tradition and blind conformity the people have agreed to continue.

What do the villagers in "The Lottery" sacrifice for a chance to be part of a community?

The villagers sacrifice individual liberty and personal choice. If an individual such as Mr. Dunbar doesn't take part in the lottery, he is ostracized and mocked. If an individual objects, as do the Adamses, their objections are shouted down. If an individual protests, as Tessie Hutchinson does, the person is told everyone took the same chance. Any action that makes an individual stand out is looked down upon. The success of the lottery depends on the group acting mindlessly as one. Readers can only speculate on the ancient threats that might have made the lottery and its ending in a human sacrifice by stoning seem rational to this group. Whatever those threats might have been—if they ever existed—they are long forgotten.

What is scapegoating, and how does "The Lottery" echo this biblical practice?

A scapegoat is a term for someone who takes the blame—often unfairly—for the misdeeds of a group. The scapegoat is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 16:10: "The goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness." The high priest took two male goats and cast lots between them; one was sacrificed, and the other was the scapegoat. The priest put the sins of the group on the goat's head by laying hands on it and then sent the goat into the wilderness, symbolically removing the sins. Like the scapegoat, the victim of the lottery is chosen by casting lots in order to achieve an impartial decision. In biblical times, this might have involved throwing dice or coins and letting the way they fell determine the outcome. In addition "The Lottery" suggests that the victim's death is somehow guaranteeing prosperity for the community. Old Man Warner hints at this when he says "Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,'" as though the ritual might have begun in an agrarian society that needed to ensure a good harvest.

What is the impact of the two households with no man to select slips from the black box in "The Lottery"?

When the heads of households open their slips, the women ask, "Is it the Dunbars? Is it the Watsons?" as if the two households where a grown man couldn't draw a slip must somehow be the obvious victims of the lottery. The community is clearly uncomfortable with a woman deciding the fate of her family. The Watson boy's first drawing is his inauguration into manhood, and the crowd supports him while deriding Mrs. Dunbar, who has taken the place of a man. The situations of the Dunbar and Watson families also highlight how much each villager knows about his or her neighbors and their family lives. At first the small town seems idyllic, full of friends; soon the reader realizes it's a town with no privacy.

What is the significance of Mr. Graves's and Mr. Summers's names in "The Lottery"?

Mr. Graves, the postmaster, is the silent partner of the lottery official. He helps set up the box and create the slips of papers and is the one to swear in Mr. Summers. His name, Graves, and his lack of dialogue evoke the saying "silent as the grave" and symbolize the true meaning of the lottery, a meaning no one in town is willing to mention. Mr. Summers has an outgoing personality and is the jovial official who is "very good at all this" and "very proper and important." His name suggests a sunny disposition and good weather, the same weather that masks the lottery's menace in the story's opening sentence. Whether silent as death or sunny as a summer day, the two men are bound on the same grisly mission.

What is the significance of the connection between Tessie Hutchinson's last name in "The Lottery"and New England's Puritan past?

Anne Hutchinson was a 17th-century New England religious leader. Hutchinson's beliefs, radical for the time, led her to rebel against the dominant Puritan church leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Tried and convicted for heresy, she was banished from her community by the General Court of Massachusetts and excommunicated from the Church of Boston. She and her followers moved to Rhode Island Colony. Her divisive leadership and ostracism from the Puritans made her a well-known historical figure. Tessie Hutchinson is also an abrasive woman who speaks against authority. However Tessie's protests are self-serving. Nonetheless, like Anne Hutchinson, her protests fall on deaf ears.

What is the significance of Mr. and Mrs. Adams's last name in "The Lottery"?

In the Hebrew Bible, Adam is the first man created by God, and the Adamses have a spark of humanity. They raise the idea that the town might not always continue the lottery, although their suggestions are quickly dismissed by Old Man Warner, the town's oldest resident. Like the original man, the Adamses in "The Lottery" are susceptible to corruption. Mr. Adams is at the front of the crowd of villagers when they begin to stone Tessie Hutchinson. Whatever reservations he and his wife may have had about the ritual murder have been extinguished by the force of the group.

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