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An Analysis and Interpretation of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

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“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is one of the most famous short stories of all time. Originally published in the New Yorker in 1948, it generated controversy due to its graphic depiction of a lottery that determines who will be stoned each year. But what kind of story provoked such a negative response?

It’s a warm summer day. Flowers are blossoming, and the sun is shining through a clear sky. All the villagers are gathering in the middle of the town for an event. This event has taken place every so often. So often that everyone’s used to it. The children’s bright, usual tones and the adult’s chatty, familiar voices evoke a sense of some ordinary occasion, as if they thought everyone had such a meet every so often. While I can’t say for sure that what was about to take place was something which took place more often than not, I can say that all of these signs lead the reader to believe that something absolutely ordinary and un-incredible was about to happen. Which is true, accept that to the modern reader, what was about to happen was absolutely savage and grotesque.

The date on which the event takes place, June 27, can also have significance, since it is placed between the celebrations of Independence Day and Midsummer’s Day. Jay A. Yarmove comments, “Midsummer’s Day has a long, heathen, orgiastic tradition behind it. American Independence Day, on the other hand, is redolent of democracy, freedom, and, to a certain degree, justice, because it marks the birth of a nation anchored in the belief that people ‘are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’ June 27 bisects the two weeks between these dichotomous dates and may well embody the contrast between superstitious paganism and rational democracy.” (Yarmov, p. 242-243).

There are many, many people and characters mentioned throughout the story, most of which are flat. Some of them, like Mrs. Dunbar, only have one or two lines in the whole story. Some of them, like the children of the Hutchinsons, have no lines at all. The ones that stand out are Bill and Tessie Hutchinson, Mr. Summers, and Old Man Warner.

Bill and Tessie are the parents of the Hutchinson family. Bill is the one who is picked via the lottery, and Tessie is the one who ends up getting stoned. Tessie, the more prominent role, speaks out against the lottery only in the end when she is picked, which implies she is very selfish, and she only cares because she is the one being attacked. Peter Korenko comments, “That Tessie’s Rebellion is entirely unconscious is revealed by her cry while being stoned, ‘It isn’t fair’ (p. 302). Tessie does not object to the lottery per se, only to her own selection as its scapegoat.” (Korensko, p. 30)

Mr. Summers, the caretaker in all this, is rather interesting, even if he doesn’t show it. Of all the people in the story, he is the most mundane and careless. He shows absolutely no emotion towards the subject matter of the story, and seems so heartless to simply carry on with calling people’s names. All though everyone exhibits this behavior, none show it more than Mr. Summers.

Old Man Warner, though lacking a real primary role, showed the most conflict throughout the story. At some parts, villagers talk about other villages stopping the tradition of the lottery. Old Man Warner becomes upset upon hearing this. I can understand this. Because of how long he’s lived with the lottery in his life, seventy-seven years, he’s become so used to it that he doesn’t want to give it up. So when he hears about other villages giving up the lottery, he gets angry at them, claiming, “There’s always been a lottery.” However, A. R. Coulthard wishes us not to think of him as evil, commenting, “Old Man Warner is usually taken to be the most allegorically evil devotee of the custom, but he is merely the most honest. He is also the only villager who seems to believe in the supposed original purpose of the sacrifice: ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”” (Coulthard, p. 266

I can’t say for sure what exactly took place at “and then they were upon her.” While it is confirmed that the ending is that they all threw stones at Mrs. Hutchinson, it could be interpreted otherwise because of the wording. They could have done any number of things to her with those stones. To me, stones are more of a throwing weapon. I’ve seen them more often thrown at the enemy rather than using it to beat him/her to death, so I tend to see it as her having been stoned, or rather, having stones thrown at her. An earlier sentence reads “a stone hit her on the side of the head,” which further implies thrown stones. But the phrase “and then they were upon her” alone leans towards her having been beaten by the stones. I can only conclude that it was a mix between those that preferred throwing stones and those who wanted to beat her to death.

And this entire story is told from a pretty objective point of view. Unfortunately, this makes for a pretty uninteresting story. The narrator seems too far outside the heads of all the characters. The Author could have very easily made changes to the characters and add a more personal, omniscient point of view, rather than something more like a police log of the event, by adding statements like, “Mrs. Hutchinson’s insides sank as soon as she saw her husband’s slip of paper,” or, “Rage pulsated through the decaying veins of Old Man Warner when he heard of the north village giving up the lottery.”

Very little is known about the character of Mr. Summers. His voice is bleak and boring; his attitude towards the situation is completely neutral. The story is about the taking of the life of one person through random selection. Symbolically, this man could almost be interpreted as the Grim Reaper. He orders and conducts the life-taking of whoever is chosen through the lottery, and even takes part in the killing.

And just like the Grim Reaper’s scythe, the Black Box is Mr. Summers’ weapon of choice. The Black Box is, obviously, colored pitch black. It’s aged and has worn over the years; it’s clearly very old. Blackness symbolizes death, which is exactly what it is causing. The ware that has taken place over the years shows that it has taken many lives. Just like the Grim Reaper’s scythe.

Also in the story, one of the older traditions surrounding the lottery is mention. “At 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.” A tuneless chant seems to show a very dark ritual; even darker than the one that is depicted in the regular story. Even just describing the event as a “ritual” implies darkness. Another statement is that there were many parts to the ceremony that many of the villagers had forgotten. What could have been part of a ritual that was already so dark? What could serve to make it an even more horrible event?

So much of the story’s symbolism also leads the reader to believe that the only thing going on here is a perfectly ordinary and regular village-wide event. The area is a grassy ground between the bank and the post office on a warm summer day. This makes the overall setting seem like a happy place to be on a rather enjoyable day, with a fun little town event going on. Symbolism that would have described the event that really happened would be a rainy night, with everyone carrying torches, surrounding the black box. The author could even replace the stoning of the individual with the burning of him or her instead.

Also, it’s not hard to notice how everyone feels about this ritual. Because it’s been in the village’s culture for so long, it seems like everyone’s used to it by now. No one feels guilt for their actions, before or during them. The most that I ever saw out of it was one of Nancy’s friends that say, “I hope it’s not Nancy.” Especially not Old Man Warner, as he’s the elder of the village and has seen the most lotteries. The children themselves show signs of completely the opposite of guilt. Before Mr. Summers gathers everyone’s attention, the children are laughing and playing, even though they have full knowledge of the actions they were about to take. The strangest thing is that they are the ones that gather the stones for everyone.

Described in the story is how the other villages have given up the lottery as a whole, while some people and some villages had so far chosen to keep it. In today’s society, America has had a pretty big delay compared to other countries. In the 1800s, America was the last country to make slave trade and use illegal. Today, America is the only country that still uses the old system of measurement. In the future, I believe that America will be the last country to dispose of their nuclear devices, and eventually stop war all together. In “The Lottery,” I can see Old Man Warner as a physical manifestation of America: old, falling apart, and still clinging onto old traditions and methods, and the other villages are like the other countries: moving onto new, more peaceful ways and traditions, with less pointless killing.

The killing of Tessie Hutchinson is also a metaphor for pointless, senseless killing throughout time and the world. It can all go back to when Man first discovered the means to take another’s life. It later goes on to a simple crime of passion, to a shooting of several people in a public place, to a terrorist suicide bombing, and it goes all the way up to full-scale war. The meaningless killing of Mrs. Hutchins is a metaphor for all this. Perhaps the story was meant to show people what they were doing and how they felt about it through the merciless murder of a character in the plot.

However, the killing could also be looked upon as one with meaning. Population control is a topic worth attention in today’s world, and this lottery could have also been meant as a way to keep the village numbers in line. But then, why would a village of a mere three-hundred need its population controlled? Perhaps someone in the village foresaw the overpopulated world we now live in and wanted to do something about it.

The story was originally published on June 28 of 1948 in The New Yorker. Anger and confusion swept New Yorker readers all over. Patrick J. Shields states, “In fact, the controversy surrounding Jackson’s work caused the cancellation of hundreds of subscriptions to the New Yorker where it first appeared.” (Shields, p. 412). An article from states, “it generated hundreds of letters from readers, the vast majority of whom were confused as to the story’s meaning.” (p. 2). Today, “The Lottery” is used for teaching English and literature studies in high schools all over the country. Shields again states, “Ironically, it was later adapted for television, radio, and ballet.” (Shields, p. 412).

“The Lottery” still holds significance today. Not just its fame, but in our minds and memories. “The Lottery” reminds us of what we at a time were. Many years ago, we as a society would have kept the tradition of murdering a villager just because it was tradition. Now when we read “The Lottery,” we are taught the lesson that we should never go back to that state of mind, and, thanks to Shirley Jackson, that is a lesson we won’t soon forget.

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An Analysis and Interpretation of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. (2022, Nov 28). Retrieved from

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