The Lottery | Study Guide

Shirley Jackson

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The Lottery | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Gathering

On the morning of June 27 in a small village, 300 residents gather in the town square to participate in the lottery, which begins at 10:00 a.m. The children, recently dismissed from school for the summer, gather first. Several young boys begin to select smooth, round stones and pile them in the center of the square.

The men join the children, chatting casually and making quiet jokes, and the women follow, exchanging gossip. Soon Mr. Summers, who runs the coal business and officiates at town social events, arrives with a black wooden box under his arm, and Mr. Graves, the postmaster, follows with a three-legged stool. People hesitate when Mr. Summers requests help, but Mr. Martin and his oldest son Baxter help steady the stool while Mr. Summers stirs the slips of paper in the box.

The Ritual

The black box has remained in use for over 77 years, since before Old Man Warner was born. The box has grown shabby with time, and Mr. Summers suggests making a new one. Not wishing to upset tradition, the villagers never make a new one, although other aspects of the old ritual have been "forgotten or discarded." For example, Mr. Summers substitutes slips of paper for the chips of wood used in the older tradition. The growing population made it necessary to use material that would fit in the box more easily.

Before the lottery can begin, Mr. Summers records lists of heads of families, heads of households in each family, and members of each household. The postmaster swears in Mr. Summers as the lottery official. In prior years the official performed a recital, described as a "tuneless chant," and saluted each resident who came up to draw a slip. Now the official greets each resident without a salute. Even without the full ceremony, his position is endowed with significance and respect.

The First Drawing

Mr. Summers chats with Mr. Graves and the Martins for a while and then turns to the crowd. At that point Tessie Hutchinson runs along the path leading to the square. She explains to her amused friend Mrs. Delacroix that she forgot what day it was, only remembering when she looked out her window to see her family gone. The crowd lets Tessie through to stand next to her husband, and the villagers remark with good humor that she made it after all. Mr. Summers jokes about her late arrival, and Mrs. Hutchinson says lightly that she had to finish washing the dishes. The crowd laughs.

Mr. Summers asks if any residents are missing. Clyde Dunbar isn't there; he has broken his leg. His wife has to draw for him since their son is not old enough. The crowd disapproves of a woman drawing, while recognizing there is no other option. Mr. Summers also affirms, to the crowd's approval, that the Watsons' oldest son is drawing this year.

Mr. Summers explains the rules that the residents have heard many times: the official will read the names of each family. The head of each household will come up and draw a paper from the box, keeping the paper folded until everyone eligible to draw has taken a slip. The men approach the box in alphabetical order by last name and solemnly greet Mr. Summers as they take their paper.

As the names are called, the residents talk among themselves. Mrs. Delacroix notes that the time since the last lottery has gone very quickly. She is visibly nervous as her husband goes forward. The men holding slips are also anxious. Tessie Hutchinson says, "Get up there, Bill," when her family name is called, making the people near her laugh.

Old Man Warner talks with Mr. and Mrs. Adams about the "north village" where "folks" are talking about giving up the lottery. Old Man Warner is derisive, saying nothing is good enough for the "young folks"—they might as well live in caves and quit working. He repeats a familiar saying: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," connecting the lottery to the harvest. Mrs. Adams points out that some towns have already stopped lotteries.

Mrs. Dunbar wishes the men would hurry and tells her son to run back and let his father know the outcome. Old Man Warner announces that it is his 77th lottery, and the crowd encourages the Watson boy as he draws for the first time.

After the heads of each household have drawn their slips, they pause until Mr. Summers approves, and they open their slips all at once. The women all begin to ask, "Who's got it?" They gradually learn that Bill Hutchinson has been selected. While Bill Hutchinson says nothing, Tessie Hutchinson shouts to Mr. Summers that he didn't give her husband enough time to take any paper he wanted. Other women in the crowd quiet her, saying they all took the same chance. Bill Hutchinson tells her to shut up.

The Second Drawing

Mr. Summers prepares for a second lottery drawing. He mentions that the first drawing took longer than expected, so they need to hurry. He asks Mr. Hutchinson if there are any other households in the Hutchinson family. Mrs. Hutchinson says that her daughter Eva and her husband Don should "take their chance." Mr. Summers reminds her that daughters draw with their husbands' families. Bill Hutchinson agrees this is fair. He then says there are no other households; the family includes only his wife and their three youngest kids, Bill Jr., Nancy, and Davy. Given this, the second drawing, in which all the heads of households in the Hutchinson family would have drawn a slip, will be skipped. The ritual will move to the final drawing.

With Tessie Hutchinson protesting quietly, Mr. Graves takes Bill Hutchinson's slip back and adds it to the box, which now contains five slips of paper. In the final lottery drawing, Davy is first. Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves help the little boy take a single piece of paper from the box. Nancy draws next, then Bill Jr. After hesitating

Tessie Hutchinson takes a slip. Bill Hutchinson is left with the last slip. One of Nancy's school friends expresses the hope that Nancy is not chosen. Old Man Warner murmurs that people aren't the way they used to be.

The Ending

When the Hutchinson children open their papers, the crowd is relieved to find that Davy's is blank. Nancy and Bill Jr. discover their slips are blank and laugh happily. Mr. Summers asks Tessie Hutchinson to open hers, but she doesn't do so. Summers then turns to Bill Hutchinson, who reveals that his slip is also blank. On Mr. Summers's instructions, Bill forces the slip out of Tessie's hand and reveals the black dot made with a heavy pencil.

Mr. Summers tells the crowd to finish quickly. The children grab stones first. Someone gives pebbles to Davy Hutchinson. The villagers, including Mrs. Delacroix and Mrs. Dunbar, take stones from the pile the young boys made earlier in the day. Tessie holds her hands out "desperately" as the crowd moves in on her. The first stone hits her and Old Man Warner urges the others on. Tessie screams, "It isn't fair, it isn't right," and then "they [are] upon her."

Analysis

The Circular Structure

The bland and quiet opening of "The Lottery" does not prepare readers for the horrors to come. The setting is simple, a sunny morning in a rural village. Equally stereotypical are the characters: children playing on the village green and adults, with their talk of "planting and rain, tractors and taxes." With this "ordinary" beginning Shirley Jackson sets up a structure that is key to the story's power.

The prose of "The Lottery" is deceptively simple, yet buried within it are odd clues, seemingly gratuitous bits of information, and troubling images that do not make sense until the story's final sentences. Readers must reread the story to see that the ending of the story was inevitable from the first sentence in which the villagers gather for the lottery. The circular story structure is a hallmark of modernist fiction, in which readers must construct meaning from the author's choice of language, details, and literary devices. "The Lottery" does not experiment with a free-flowing narrative form, like modernist works by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. However its demands on the reader to decipher the meaning of the text from the author's choices can be found in modernist works such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Literary Devices and the Force of Parable

In "The Lottery" situational and dramatic irony, foreshadowing, symbolism, and repetitions accumulate to transform the second reading of the story. When the ending reveals the significance of these devices, the story becomes a chilling study of the potential for evil and group violence and the resistance to difference, diversity, and change. For the careful reader it also provides the opportunity to contemplate dilemmas of his or her time.

The story's setting begins with an example of situational irony: "clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of full-summer day." In fact this is a dark day for the residents. The conductor of the lottery is Mr. Summers—his name an example of verbal irony—who conducts "civic activities" such as square dances that are as entertaining as the lottery is horrific. "Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie," he says cheerfully to Mrs. Hutchinson, acknowledging that everyone present in the square is expendable. Tessie's final words are an example of dramatic irony, in which readers know something the story characters do not. "It isn't fair, it isn't right," she screams. The lottery only becomes "unfair" to her when she is the victim, although, of course, the ritual is not "right" to a civilized reader.

Foreshadowing promotes a mood of dread and anxiety. School is out and "the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them." Stones are stuffed in children's pockets and piled in corners, the smoothest, roundest ones coldheartedly preselected by the children. The box, splintered on one side and so "wounded," foreshadows the first blow on the side of Tessie's head.

Symbols abound in the story. The names show the insularity of this village. Adams is the "first man" on the alphabetical list prepared for the lottery and the first to suggest the end of the ritual. His name, of course, evokes that of Adam, the first man created in the Hebrew Bible. The postmaster, Mr. Graves, offers a three-legged stool to support the box, evoking the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Christian religion and carrying with it a suggestion of racism. Summers is the "sunny" man willing to help out with all tasks, good and evil. Zanini is last, the only name suggesting a resident who isn't from Anglo-Saxon stock.

Repetition is another key device in "The Lottery." Individual words occur over and over until they achieve the status of images. Jackson especially repeats the word hands: they are grasped or clung to, a heavy stone is picked up with both hands, Tessie's are held out desperately. Stones, too, occur over and over, described by size, location, and finally motion as one hits Tessie's head.

The effect of these literary devices is to transform the narrative into a parable that functions to attempt to explain the unexplainable: humanity's darkest forces. "The Lottery" elicits terror without any hope for a culture that rejects change, a chilling lesson for a country founded on democratic ideals. The story attacks the belief in a common humanity and the trust in governmental safeguards that preserve the common good. If the rallying cry of Holocaust historians was "lest we forget," Jackson's story goes further, asking readers to imagine the evil that resides within the self. In practical terms "The Lottery" teaches that survival is the primary matter of self-interest. It raises the question of who among us is strong enough to resist tyranny when it threatens firsthand.

The Mindless Preservation of Tradition

The description of old lottery traditions, which rituals have survived, and which have fallen by the wayside provides a back story. The reader still doesn't know the purpose of the lottery, but details show how meaningful it is to the villagers. The lottery is clearly a communal rite that connects to the foundation of the town and to the villagers' sense of themselves. Late June, when the story takes place, coincides with the summer solstice, in ancient times a season of celebration and sacrifice. The story of the black box's construction also demonstrates a link to the past. That the box has no permanent place and is often in the way, even in storage, foreshadows the outworn nature of the practice the box represents.

Although Adams, the contemporary "first man," wishes for change, the will of the crowd over time has produced only practical changes to the ritual, changes designed to preserve it. For example, the inscription of names on wood chips has been exchanged for slips of paper that memorably end up as trash. Perhaps this is the greatest irony of the story, as loss of ritual practice has brought loss of meaning of the ritual. These observations contain a disturbing observation about the limits of flexibility when established practice is threatened. Only the shell is preserved.

Tessie Hutchinson doesn't enter with as much solemnity as Mr. Summers, the lottery's official, yet the reader knows that she will be an important character. She's the only one to arrive late and the one who seems least anxious. She is so accustomed to the lottery's presence in her life that she forgot about it when it rolled around. She even jokes with Mr. Summers, the only villager to do so. In her the reader gets a sense of daily life routines abandoned: dirty dishes in the sink, wet hands dried on an apron, sweater hastily thrown over shoulders. Why doesn't Tessie Hutchinson take the lottery more seriously? Possibly, like many witnesses to atrocities, she doesn't think the selection could ever happen to her. Is Tessie Hutchinson's selection meant to punish her—for her lateness, her jokes, her protests? Or is her selection simply random? The story leaves both possibilities open.

The conversations the villagers have during the first lottery drawing reflect their feelings about the process. Mr. Summers must formally ask questions about the men who can't participate in the lottery, a civic duty. The Adamses openly question the ritual. They mention that other towns are considering abandoning the tradition, and some have already done so and survived. Perhaps they are thinking privately that the town does not really need a lottery.

Old Man Warner is the only one to explicitly link the lottery to agriculture and the harvest. Druids had similar sacrificial rites to ensure good crops, and Old Man Warner evokes a possible world where societies never developed beyond "living in caves." Following their rituals will ensure order and abundance. This parallel suggests the relationship between cruelty and consumer goods: how much bad behavior will a community forgive in order to keep food on the table?

Once the heads of families open their papers, the story's mood changes. Tessie Hutchinson's panicked and accusatory reaction is understandable to the reader, but the villagers instantly react harshly toward her. They know any one of them could be a victim, since random chance drives the lottery. Tessie Hutchinson's fear reminds them of a fear they all have, a dread that most of them are relieved to be able to shed for another year. The crowd calls on her to be sportsmanlike and diplomatic; she participated in the lottery, and she must deal with the consequences.

Tessie Hutchinson does not speak out against a corrupt system, only the fact that her family has been picked for scapegoating. Her failed attempt to include her married daughter and son-in-law in what becomes a fatal drawing reveals the desire for self-preservation. Faced with the possibility of death, she perverts the normal instincts of motherhood.

During the final drawing, children participate. This gives the event added menace. By the time Nancy's school friend vocally hopes the "winner" is not Nancy, the reader knows being chosen in the lottery is a bad fate but is still ignorant about that fate. Davy Hutchinson doesn't understand what is going on. He looks "wonderingly" at the adults, trusting them. The relief is palpable when Davy isn't chosen, though there is little doubt that the town would have carried out his fate if he had been.

The story's explosive ending highlights Tessie's role as a surrogate for the reader. She is the only resident shocked and confused at the lottery's outcome, just as the reader must be. She alone expresses feelings of disorientation and bewilderment as her fate becomes inevitable. Her stoning is not fair or right in the reader's sense of justice, but it happens anyway. Readers are left to decide what this injustice means to them.

The Lottery Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 The villagers gather in the town square.

Rising Action

2 Mr. Summers makes up the lists of families and households.

3 Tessie Hutchinson arrives late.

4 The villagers draw lots in the first lottery.

Climax

5 Bill Hutchinson is selected in the first lottery.

Falling Action

6 The Hutchinson family draws lots in the final lottery.

Resolution

7 Tessie Hutchinson is selected and stoned to death.

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