The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How is the title "The Lottery" an example of situational irony, and how does the author sustain it?

The title "The Lottery" is an example of situational irony because there is an incongruity between the reader's expectation and the outcome of the story. Lotteries are a kind of gambling associated with winning a prize. In America in 1901, for instance, some parcels of Oklahoma land were granted to settlers through a lottery system. In "The Lottery," however, the "winner" of the story's lottery is sentenced to a grisly death by stoning. Jackson is able to sustain the situational irony in the story by revealing information only gradually. She starts by presenting a stereotypically sunny day. Through details, from a glimpse of a pile of stones to nervous grins between characters, she builds a sense of unease until the explosive ending of the story is reached.

In "The Lottery" what is the impact of the repeated references to finishing the lottery in a timely way?

The impact of the repeated references to finishing in a timely way is to suggest that the villagers have numbed themselves to the horror of the lottery's outcome. The opening paragraph states that because the village is small, the lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at 10:00 a.m. and "still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner." Mr. Summers comments at the beginning of the ritual that the town should "get this over with, so's we can go back to work." Mrs. Dunbar repeats, "I wish they'd hurry," and Mr. Summers says after the first round, "now we've got to be hurrying a little more to get done in time." Finally Mrs. Delacroix tells Mrs. Dunbar to "Hurry up" just before Old Man Warner urges everyone to "Come on, come on." The community members seem to have distanced themselves from a distasteful task that must be "gotten over with." Their denial of the lottery's brutality allows them to continue to tolerate the tradition.

Why might Jackson have chosen a small-town rural village for the setting of "The Lottery"?

Small towns are associated with both "folksiness," knowing all one's neighbors, and small-mindedness, while rural settings are associated with pastoral beauty. Jackson chooses this small-town rural setting to show the banality, or ordinariness, of evil. "Folksiness": The characters in "The Lottery" know each other well, greeting each other by first names and making small talk with one another. The same characters who can "soft[ly] laugh" at Tessie can cold-bloodedly stone her to death. Small-mindedness: Two characters, the Adamses, dare to raise objections to the lottery but are quickly shushed by the town's oldest resident. The interaction shows the mob mentality that allows the lottery to continue. Pastoral beauty: The almost stereotypical beauty of the town hides the stark horror of its organizing ritual.

How is the maternal instinct portrayed in "The Lottery," and why is it portrayed this way?

The maternal instinct is absent in "The Lottery." The women call their children, not for safety or solidarity, but to ensure that they are present to follow the lottery's rules. Tessie Hutchinson realizes by the absence of her children that it's the day for the lottery. Mrs. Dunbar says regretfully of her son, "Horace's not but sixteen," as if she wishes he were old enough to take her place in the barbaric ritual. The mother of the Watson boy, who draws for the two of them, has no role in the story. Most shocking is the fact that when the Hutchinson family is targeted in the first drawing, Tessie yells that her married daughter and son-in-law should have "take[n] their chance." She is willing to sacrifice her own child to save herself. The lack of a maternal instinct among the story's mothers emphasizes the way the lottery has dehumanized its participants. The characters are no longer in the realm of making ethical choices. They have descended into a brutal state in which survival is more important than the mother-child bond.

In "The Lottery" what roles do Mr. Summers, Mr. Graves, and Mr. Martin play in the lottery, and how are their respective professions related to its practice?

Mr. Summers, Mr. Graves, and Mr. Martin are the only characters whose professions are named. Mr. Summers, the lottery's official who runs the coal business, carries the black box into the town square. Mr. Graves, the postmaster, has assisted Mr. Summers in making up the slips of paper, carries the stool the box rests on, and swears in Mr. Summers. Mr. Martin, the grocer, assists Mr. Summers in steadying the black box while Mr. Summers stirs up the papers. All three men have had the ownership of the box at one time or another during the year, making them all complicit in the approaching death of a member of their community. Mr. Summers with his coal company is associated with the fires of hell. Mr. Graves as postmaster helps deliver the message of the lottery's winner/victim, and Mr. Martin, as grocer, literally and figuratively helps to hold up a tradition that seemingly is meant to ensure a good harvest.

What was the impact of the Holocaust on the writing of "The Lottery"?

In an introduction to a collection of Shirley Jackson's works, her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, openly linked the element of horror in her writing to the suffering of concentration camp victims in World War II. Jackson herself explained the story as a dramatization of "pointless violence and general inhumanity." For Jackson the evils of the Holocaust had strained the notion of humankind's innate goodness. The complicity of the story's villagers in a barbaric ritual clearly parallels the thinking of both the Nazi officials who were "following orders" and the Europeans who readily betrayed their consciences and their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis out of fear.

How is obedience to authority a significant factor in "The Lottery"?

Jackson illuminates the strength of obedience to authority by giving no pressing reason, other than tradition, for the lottery to take place at all. The only rationale ever provided for the lottery is that it was once thought to ensure a good crop; as Old Man Warner says, if the villagers give it up, "First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns." However the villagers don't appear to be suffering from hunger or need. Instead readers are given the picture of a typical small town with its square "between the post office and the bank," signs of order and prosperity. It seems as if by following tradition the townspeople are saved the burden of thinking for themselves.

What role does friendship play in "The Lottery"?

The lottery clearly has a dehumanizing effect on the villagers that makes real friendship and connection among individuals impossible. Before the lottery begins, the villagers engage in small talk that is described in generic terms. The men speak "of planting and rain, tractors and taxes" while the women exchange "bits of gossip." Tessie Hutchinson taps Mrs. Delacroix on the arm as a farewell as if she is afraid to really touch her neighbor. Once the ritual starts the people can talk only of the process: whose turn it is, how long it is taking, how the rules must be followed. Finally after Tessie is selected as the lottery's victim, the villagers can speak only of finishing quickly. Readers can only imagine what life in this town must be during the rest of the year as its residents wonder which family member or neighbor will be the next victim.

How does the concept of sportsmanship affect the characters in "The Lottery"?

The townspeople react to the lottery as if it is a sport that must be played fairly and won or lost graciously. Mrs. Delacroix exhorts Tessie Hutchinson to "be a good sport," as if the lottery is a game. Mrs. Graves adds, "All of us took the same chance," as though playing by the rules can justify the murder that is about to take place. Tessie herself repeats a variation on "It wasn't fair" five times, although she begins to raise this protest only after her family is selected in the lottery's first round. Sportsmanship, of course, values ethics and integrity, both of which are starkly absent in this community. Its evocation by the characters seems to help distance them from the evil nature of the lottery.

How does family loyalty affect the characters in "The Lottery"?

In the lottery's first round, the fate of each family is bound together. When each man goes up in the first lottery drawing, he knows his choice of paper will affect everyone in his family, even his children. The men treat the situation with appropriate gravity; Mr. Adams stands "a little apart from his family" after being the first to draw his slip of paper from the black box. With the exception of Tessie Hutchinson, who makes a joke as Bill goes toward the box, the women do as well. Mrs. Delacroix holds her breath while her husband goes forward, for instance. Loyalty breaks down in the second round, when the members of a family are pitted against one another. Tessie tries to bring her own daughter, Eva, into the second selection. None of the Hutchinson family members fight to save Tessie; their desire for self-preservation is too strong. When Tessie protests her family's selection and Bill Hutchinson tells her to "shut up," Bill knows he can no longer protect his family from the approaching violence.

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