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The Lottery
By Shirley Jackson  (1919-1965)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
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Type of Work
Date of Publication
Setting
Characters
Plot Summary
Themes
The Horror
Foreshadowing
Point of View
Climax
Irony
Symbols
Will the Lottery Die Out?
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography

Notes and Plot Summary by Michael J. Cummings... 2004
Study Guide Revised and Enlarged in 2009
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Type of Work

.......u0093The Lotteryu0094 is a short story in the horror genre. Critics generally consider it one of the finest American short stories of the twentieth century. 

Date of Publication
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......."The Lottery" was published on June 26, 1948, in The New Yorker, a literary magazine. Its shocking ending horrified readers, who deluged the magazine with letters of complaint. Many readers cancelled their subscription to the magazine. After the hubbub subsided, critics realized what an outstanding short story it was. Today, the story appears in numerous anthologies for high school and college students. 

Setting

.......The action takes place between 10 a.m. and noon on June 27, a sunny day, in a New England village. 

Characters

Bobby Martin: Boy who loads his pockets with stones that he will use after townspeople draw lottery numbers. He also helps build a pile of stones.
Baxter Martin: Older brother of Bobby Martin.
Harry Jones: Boy who joins Bobby Martin in building the pile of stones.
Dickie Delacroix: Boy who joins Bobby Martin and Harry Jones in building the pile of stones.
Mr. Martin: Bobby Martin's father. He operates a grocery store. 
Mrs. Martin: Wife of Mr. Martin.
Joe Summers: Coal dealer who conducts the lottery. He has no children.
Mr. Summers's Wife: Shrewish woman.
Mr. Graves: Postmaster. He assists Mr. Summers.
Mrs. Graves: Wife of the postmaster.
Old Man Warner: Oldest man in town.
Tessie Hutchinson: Woman who arrives late for the lottery. 
Bill Hutchinson: Husband of Mrs. Hutchinson.
Bill Jr., Nancy, Little Dave: Children of Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson.
School Friends of Nancy Hutchinson
Eva: Daughter of Bill and Tessie Hutchinson.
Don: Eva's husband.
Mrs. Delacroix: Mother of Dickie Delacroix.
Mr. Delacroix: Husband of Mrs. Delacroix.
Clyde Dunbar: Village resident who broke his leg and cannot attend the lottery.
Janey Dunbar: Wife of Clyde Dunbar. She draws for her husband.
Horace Dunbar: Son of Clyde and Janey Dunbar. Being under sixteen, he is not old enough to draw for his father.
Another Dunbar: Son of Clyde and Janey Dunbar.
Jack Watson: Teenager who draws for himself and his mother.
Mrs.Watson: Mother of the Watson boy.
Steve Adams: First villager to draw from the lottery box.
Mrs. Adams: Wife of Steve Adams.
Allen, Anderson, Bentham, Clarak: Residents who draw after Steve Adams.
Harburt, Jones, Overdyke, Percy, Zanini: Participants who draw next. 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings 2004

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.......Residents of a New England village gather at 10 a.m. on June 27 in the square between the post office and the bank for the annual lottery. A bright sun is shining down on fragrant flowers and green lawns while the townspeopleu0096more than 300 of themu0096await the arrival of Mr. Summers and the black wooden box from which everyone is to draw a folded slip of paper. Adults chat while children play a game in which they gather stones. Whoever draws the slip of paper with the black dot on it will receive all of the lottery proceeds. 
.......Over the years, the lottery rules and trappings remained the same except for minor changes: Wood chips were replaced by the slips of paper, and ritual chants and salutes preceding the drawing were eliminated. Other than those modernizations, the same old rules prevailed year after year. 
.......No one in the square knows why or under what circumstances the lottery began. All they know is that it is a traditionu0096a tradition that they are not willing to abandon. 
.......After Mr. Summers shows up with the black box, he sets it down and prepares for the drawing. A housewife, Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson, arrives late just then, telling Mrs. Delacroix that she u0093Clean forgot what day it wasu0094 until she noticed that her children had left her house and remembered it was the day of the lottery. 
.......Each of the townspeople draws a folded slip of paper but does not open it until everyone has drawn. When the big moment arrives, it is Tessie Hutchinson who has the paper with the black dot. Everyone then closes in on her, picks up rocksu0096the u0093proceedsu0094 of the lotteryu0096and stones her to death.
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Themes

Theme 1:.The reluctance of people to reject outdated traditions, ideas, rules, laws, and practices. The villagers continue the lottery year after year because, as one of the villagers would say, u0093We have always had a lottery as far back as I can remember. I see no reason to end it.u0094 Put another way, this theme says: u0093Weu0092ve always done it this way. Why change now?u0094 In real life, defenders of the status quo have used this philosophy down through the ages and into the present day. For example, it was used in 1776 to retain slavery even though the Declaration of Independence asserted that u0093all men are created equal.u0094 Until 1919, it was used to prevent women from voting. Until the 1960's, it was used as an official public policy to allow racial segregation. This philosophy continues to be used today to retain outmoded practices, discriminatory practices, and sometimes dangerous practices. These practices include the use of paper ballots in elections, the use of nuclear weapons, capital punishment, abortion, anti-Semitism, racial profiling, and denial of health benefits to the poor.
Theme 2:.Society wrongfully designates scapegoats to bear the sins of the community. According to some interpretations of u0093The Lottery,u0094 Tessie Hutchinson is stoned to death to appease forces desiring a sacrificial lamb offered in atonement for the sins of others. The practice of using scapegoats dates back to ancient times, when Jews ritually burdened a goat with the sins of the people, then threw it over a cliff to rid the community of those sins. Ancient Greeks performed a similar ritual with a human scapegoat, although the scapegoat apparently did not die. In ancient Rome, an innocent person could take on the sin of a guilty person, thus purifying the latter. Early societies in Central and South America offered human sacrifices to appease higher powers. 
Theme 3:.The wickedness of ordinary people can be just as horrifying as the heinous crime of a serial killer or a sadistic head of state. From time to time, we are surprised to learn that the man, woman, or even child next dooru0096a quiet, unassuming postal worker, bank clerk, or studentu0096has committed offenses so outrageous that they make national news.
Theme 4:.The unexamined life is not worth living. The truth of this dictum of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, becomes clear when the townspeople refuse to examine their traditions and continue to take part in a barbaric ritual.
Theme 5:.Following the crowd can have disastrous consequences. Although some townspeople raise questions about the lottery, they all go along with it in the end. Thus, they become unthinking members of a herd, forfeiting their individuality and sending Tessie Hutchinson to her death. 

A List of Horrors

.......Some first-time readers of "The Lottery" tend to cite the ending, describing the commencement of the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson, as the only disturbing part of the story. But those who have studied the story know otherwise. Consider, for example, the following:

  • After executing a woman by stoning, the townspeople will go home to eat lunch or go back to work as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. The first paragraph says, "[T][he whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner." The tenth paragraph says, "Well, now," Mr. Summers said soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work."
  • The villagers do not excuse children from the lottery. Even Nancy Hutchinson, 12, and her little brother, Davy, must draw from the black box. If a child draws the slip of paper with the black dot, he or she will be stoned. 
  • Children take part in the stoning. Little Davy is so small that he throws pebbles. 
  • Nancy Hutchinson and her brother Bill laugh when they draw blank lots. Only two people remain to draw, their father and mother. How could Nancy and Bill laugh when they know that their father or mother will draw the lot with the black spot and die? 
  • Mr. Hutchinson pulls from his wife's hand the slip of paper she has drawn--the losing lot--and holds it up for all to see. He does not plead for his wife; he does not exhibit any sympathy. Instead, he becomes one of the executioners.
Foreshadowing

.......Shirley Jackson foreshadows the ending when the children gather stones (second paragraph):

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix . . . eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. 
Point of View

.......The point of view is third person, detached and objective.

Climax

.......The climax occurs at the end, when the villagers begin to stone Tessie Hutchinson. 

Irony

Following are examples of irony in the story:

  • The word lottery suggests that the villagers are going to draw for a prize.
  • The sunny day suggests that a happy event is about to take place.
  • When Old Man Warner hears that the north village is considering ending the lottery, he says, "Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves." (The lottery is as savage and barbaric a ritual as any practiced by cave dwellers.) 
Symbols and Portentous Names

The lottery: (1) Barbaric tradition or practice. In this category in former times were slavery and human sacrifice practiced by the ancient Maya civilization that inhabitated modern-day Mexico and other Central American countries. In modern times, abortion, capital punisment, sadomasochism, cage-fighting, and dog-fighting are in this category. (2) Any foolhardy tradition that a community refuses to give up, such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. (3) Real-life lotteries and other forms of gambling that devastate human beings. (4) The risks of daily living, such as driving a car or flying on an airplane, 
Black box: (1) Evil or death, suggested by the color of the box. (2) Outdated tradition, suggested by this sentence: "The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained."
Boys gathering stones and pebbles: Indoctrination or brainwashing that is passed on from one generation to the next.
Old Man Warner: Anyone who warns others not to change; hidebound traditionalist; Luddite; obstructionist.
Mr. Summers: The appearance of normalcy and cheerfulness hiding evil and corruption.
Bill and Davy Hutchinson: Betrayers. The narrator says, "Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and forced the slip of paper out of her hand. It had a black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company office. Bill Hutchinson held it up, and there was a stir in the crowd." As for Davy, he has pebbles ready to throw at his mother. Hutchinson was the name of an official who lodged a complaint against several women in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.
Mr. Graves: Bringer of death; any sinister influence. Graves helps Joe Summers prepare the slips of paper that will send one of the residents to his or her grave. Graves also brings the stool on which the black box rests. 
Village: That which appears normal and even benevolent but which harbors inner corruption and evil. 
Mrs. Delacroix: In French, de means of and la croix means the cross. Mrs. Delacroix, who treats Tessie Hutchinson cordially when the latter arrives for the drawing, later picks up a huge stone to hurl at the condemned woman. One may say that she "double-crosses" Tessie by helping to "crucify" her. 
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Will the Lottery Die Out?

.......The story presents the possibility that the lottery is dying out. For example, a passage in the seventh paragraph indicates that the villagers have already permitted certain parts of the lottery ritual to lapse:

[A]t one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had been, also, a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching.
Later in the story Steve Adams tells Old Man Warner "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery." A moment later, Mrs. Adams says, "Some places have already quit lotteries."

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Write an essay that presents your opinion on why the ancestors of the villagers began the lottery.
  • Give several examples of questionable traditions or customs, such as hazing, in which people today participate.
  • Black is a symbol representing evil or death. Sunlight is a symbol representing joy and happiness. Give other examples of symbols that writers regularly use in short stories, poems, and novels.
  • Write an essay that describes the tone (mood) of the story. Present examples from the story that support your thesis.
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