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The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In "The Lottery" how does the narrator reveal information to readers, and what is the effect?

The narrator of "The Lottery" reveals information slowly and incompletely to keep readers in suspense. The style is sparse, with no more explanation than is necessary. Readers encounter mysterious details, such as the children gathering stones and the "sudden hush" that falls on the crowd as Mr. Summers prepares to read his list of names, without understanding them. Some information, such as the original purpose of the lottery, is never revealed. Only on a second reading do readers see that each detail matters. The story of the black box, for instance, shows the town's mindless devotion to tradition. The villagers' nervous gestures, wetting their lips, not looking around, "grinning humorlessly and nervously," foreshadow their awareness of the coming violence. The effect is to make the reader shocked and bewildered at the story's ending. This was Jackson's intent, as she revealed to the San Francisco Chronicle. In her own words she "hoped ... to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the ... general inhumanity in their own lives."

How do the physical descriptions of characters reveal their personalities in "The Lottery"?

Mr. Summers's round face and simple, modern dress—clean white shirt and blue jeans—make him appear deceptively friendly, innocent, and trustworthy. Although he officiates over the lottery process, the narrator seems to be echoing the thoughts of the villagers by saying he "was very good at all this." The women's "faded house dresses and sweaters" make them appear meek and self-effacing, as if they cannot control their own fates, which turns out to be true. Among the women only Tessie Hutchinson appears untidy, with her sweater thrown over her shoulders and her apron on. She is the only character to openly protest the lottery. The descriptions of the Hutchinson children emphasize their youth and vulnerability. Nancy is dainty, Bill Jr. is a clumsy adolescent with "overlarge" feet, and Davy is "little." In their immaturity the two older children show natural relief when they are not selected for the lottery. Either they don't reflect on the fact that this means one of their parents will die, or they don't care.

Why does "The Lottery" end abruptly?

The ending is meant to provoke both shock and discomfort. The story ends as the villagers close in on Tessie Hutchinson: "and then they were upon her." The narrator does not reflect on the aftermath of Tessie's murder. Questions such as: How do the villagers feel afterward? Do they really go back to work as if it's a normal day? go unanswered. The effect of the abrupt ending is to force readers to reflect on these and other questions: What would it take for this sort of sanctioned violence to happen in a civilized world? Has it already happened? And most important: What would I do in this situation?

How does the circular structure of "The Lottery" mark it as a modernist text?

The circular text is a modernist invention. For example, the most famous practitioner of the modernist novel, James Joyce, employs a sentence fragment in his novel Finnegans Wake: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's" to open the book. He closes the work with the front part of the opening phrase: "A way a lone a last a loved a long the[.]" Joyce provides no capital for the first letter of the opening phrase and no period to end the last sentence. "The Lottery" appears to be a straightforward story in deceptively simple prose, yet the ending compels the reader to consider the story again. Distributed through the story are odd word choices, images such as the children's pile of stones and the battered black box, and pieces of information that readers must gather up in hindsight to make sense of the ending. The demand that the story puts on the reader to reread marks it as a modernist text.

What does "The Lottery" reveal about the gulf between how people act and how they see themselves?

"The Lottery" asks readers to set aside their sense of well-being and contemplate their potential for evil. On the surface the townspeople appear to be both civilized and unified. They follow directions and willingly "lend a hand" to steady the box and to hold little Dave's slip for him. All the other towns are where the "crazy fools" live, as Old Man Warner says. While readers view the concept of a human sacrifice by stoning as barbaric, the townspeople seem unable to admit this to themselves. Instead they see themselves as good sports for participating in the lottery without complaint. Mrs. Graves points out to Tessie Hutchinson, "All of us took the same chance," as if this justifies Tessie Hutchinson's impending murder.

Why does "The Lottery" place an emphasis on the passing of time?

The story emphasizes the passing of time repeatedly. The effect is both to foreshadow the fact that Tessie's life—her "time on earth"—will soon be cut short and to underscore how detached the villagers have become from the horror of their ritual. The death of Tessie, the lottery's future victim, is foreshadowed when she is late to arrive for the ritual and when she protests her family's selection in the lottery's first round. "You didn't give [Bill Hutchinson] time enough to choose," she says. Readers see from the first line of spoken dialogue, as Mr. Summers says "Little late today, folks," that the villagers look on the lottery as a burden they must rid themselves of as soon as possible. After Tessie's selection Mr. Summers urges the group to "finish quickly," while Mrs. Delacroix tells Mrs. Dunbar to "hurry up." The words are chilling when readers understand what the villagers are being urged to do.

What images of Christianity appear in "The Lottery," and what are their effects?

The effects of the images of Christianity are to show how the villagers have rejected the message of loving one's neighbor. The name Delacroix, meaning "of the cross," has been corrupted to the pronunciation "Dellacroy," which removes the allusion to Christianity. The three-legged stool, a reference to biblical principles of Christianity, requires the help of three men to support it: a father, son, and Mr. Summers. The image of a team of three holding up biblical principles evokes the triune (three-part) God of Christianity, the doctrine that God is three persons in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this case, however, the father, son, and lottery official uphold the symbol of an ancient ritual of human sacrifice, which belongs to pagan religions.

How do the characters in "The Lottery" demonstrate their concern with appearances?

None of the villagers want to be seen as dissenters or troublemakers. They cooperate by gathering in the square on time and taking their turns drawing slips from the black box. The Adamses quickly drop their questioning of the lottery when Old Man Warner silences them. They express their unease in small gestures, such as when the men turn the folded papers from the first drawing "over and over nervously" in their hands. Only Tessie Hutchinson makes a fuss, shouting at Mr. Summers and yelling that her daughter should have to be counted in the lottery's second round. Yet Tessie herself grabs a paper when Mr. Summers calls her name. Her willingness to conform for the sake of appearance is her death sentence.

How does "The Lottery" portray the idea of social order?

The village that holds the lottery appears to have some sort of social order. There is a post office, a bank, and a town square, and they hold the typically American "civic activities" over which Mr. Summers presides; square dances, a teen club, and a Halloween program. However there is no apparent leader or government in place; for example, Mr. Summers is sworn in by the postmaster, Mr. Graves, not a mayor. Furthermore the social order offers no protection from the lottery. In fact the opposite is true: in their mindless conformity, the villagers seem to demand participation in the lottery as the price of belonging.

In "The Lottery" how does the narrator describe the town's size, and what is its significance?

Readers are told both that the village has "only" about 300 people and "more than three hundred and likely to keep on growing." The fact that the town is relatively small means that the lottery can be conducted in "less than two hours," in comparison to bigger towns where the lottery takes two days. The contradictory fact that the town has more than 300 people means that practical changes need to be made—the substitution of paper for wood chips in the black box, for instance. The contradictory description of the town's size is significant because it reflects the ambivalence of the villagers toward the lottery. On one hand they can get it over with quickly. On the other a bigger population would mean more households were involved, decreasing the chance that a particular family would be selected.

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