The Lottery by Shirley Jackson – Summary, Themes, and Analysis
August 31, 2023
Shirley Jackson is best remembered for her sharply critical, feminist deflation of broadly accepted norms of mid-twentieth-century American life. It is a great irony that her most incendiary of works, “The Lottery,” is now a widely taught classic. When Jackson’s short story was published in The New Yorker in late June of 1948, both the author and magazine were subjected to a firestorm of hate mail from readers. The story made Jackson famous, or infamous, almost overnight. Its early reception is perhaps one key to the story’s enduring appeal for contemporary readers. Why did Jackson strike such a nerve in 1948? You can hear the story read by the actress Elisabeth Moss, who notably played Jackson in a recent biopic. But if you want to understand what made the story a firebrand of controversy, this article postulates some theories after our The Lottery by Shirley Jackson summary.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Summary
Jackson’s story takes place within a single day, June 27th, of an unspecified year. The first sentences establish the bucolic, small-town setting in which the action will unfold. During this day, villagers will amass in the town square for the yearly lottery, which lasts for about two hours. Jackson’s narrator compares this with other, similarly unnamed larger towns where the ritual takes longer. Children recently on summer break are the first to assemble. Three male children, named Bobby Martin, Harry Jones, and Dickie Delacroix, make a game of aggregating and sorting stones. Soon adult men, followed by women, begin to gather. They exhibit the stereotypical normalcy of small-town life, warmly gossiping and discussing work.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Summary—Part Two
As more gather, they begin to sort themselves into discrete nuclear families. Then Mr. Summers, the organizer and master of ceremonies for this town’s lottery, is introduced. It is suggested that he occupies his role because of his lack of children. He carries a black wooden box, which he places on a three-legged stool in the center of the square. Reflecting on this box, the narrator describes its age and the even older “original [lottery] paraphernalia” that has been lost. Despite this, the villagers respect the sense of tradition conferred on the black box. Some even tell stories that the box is made up of pieces of the older box. Although the symbols and process of the lottery have gradually changed, there is still a concerted effort by all involved to connect it to the ritual’s origins.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Summary—Part Three
Mr. Summers filled the box with slips of paper the previous day and kept it locked in a safe overnight. His duties also involve confirming the attendance of each family and family member. While Mr. Summers prepares for the lottery, Tessie Hutchinson shows up breathless and late, having forgotten the important date. She good-humoredly greets her husband, Bill, who playfully chides her lateness. After Tessie’s arrival, Mr. Summers expresses his impatience to begin. A man named Dunbar is discovered to be absent due to a broken leg. It is ascertained that his wife will draw in the lottery in his place, because Dunbar’s son is under the age of sixteen. However, another teenage boy in the Watson family declares he is old enough to draw for his father.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Summary—Part Four
Following a hush in the crowd, Mr. Summers begins the lottery. As Mr. Summers reads names, the heads of families approach the box and extract a piece of paper. The men, Mrs. Dunbar, and young Jack Watson select paper slips. They each avoid looking at the slips and hold onto them nervously. While this process unfolds, the villagers gossip about other towns abandoning the lottery ritual. Old Man Warner, the oldest villager, scoffs at this and derides young people. He asserts the necessity of the lottery for a productive, harmonious society and a plentiful harvest. When his name is called, Old Man Warner announces that it is his seventy-seventh year taking part in the lottery.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Summary—Part Five
After all the heads of families draw papers, they simultaneously open them to read the results. It is revealed that the Hutchinson family has been selected in this year’s lottery. Bill Hutchison seems stoic in the face of the news, but his late-arriving wife Tessie immediately panics. She argues with Mr. Summers, saying he rushed her husband’s paper selection. Bill and the other villagers chide her for her response and caution her to be a good sport. Then, Mr. Summers prepares for the next phase of the lottery process. Five slips of paper are selected in put in the box, representing Bill, Tessie, and three of their children. The others are scattered on the ground.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Summary—Part Six
Tessie continues to protest, saying that her other daughter and son-in-law should be included. Mr. Summers rebuffs this argument, explaining that daughters draw with their husbands’ families. Demoralized, Tessie fumes to herself about the unfairness of the lottery. Next, the five Hutchinsons—Bill, Tessie, Bill, Jr., Nancy, and little Dave—select from the five available slips. Amid the mounting dread of the narrative, there is a horrifying description of the Hutchinson toddler being helped to draw. A girl in the crowd whispers her hope that her twelve-year-old friend, Nancy Hutchinson, will be spared. Old Man Warner expresses disappointment that the atmosphere is different than it used to be. We can infer from his earlier characterization that he expects a more respectful, enthusiastic response.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Summary—Ending
After each of the family members has selected, Mr. Summers tells them to open their slips. A general sigh is let out when little Dave’s paper is revealed to be blank. Nancy and Bill, Jr. also have blank papers. Finally, Bill opens his paper and reveals that it is also blank. Mr. Hutchinson forces the mute Tessie to reveal her slip, which bears a black spot. In a cruel twist of irony, Tessie is the “winner” of the lottery. Everyone quickly prepares for the end of the ritual. Jackson’s narrator remarks that, although many aspects of the ritual have been forgotten, the use of stones has been endlessly preserved.
Villagers select from the pile of stones prepared earlier by the children. Mrs. Delacroix, who has been friendly with Tessie throughout the story, selects a stone so large it requires both hands. Even little Dave Hutchinson is supplied with a few pebbles, suggesting the necessity of universal participation. With Tessie now in the middle of the square, the villagers begin to hurl the stones at her. She desperately begs them to stop, continuing to protest that the lottery was not fair. But the story ends with the villagers converging on Tessie and presumably killing her.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Theme: Group Psychology
An immediately remarkable aspect of “The Lottery” is the relative anonymity of its setting and characters. We never learn the name of the town or even its location. Some of the characters are given names and brief sketches of their backgrounds and interiorities. But for the most part, the emphasis is on an undifferentiated small-town community. And the only thing we really know about this community is its potential for sudden aggression and violence. From this, it seems clear that Jackson is interested in using fiction to explore the group psychology of mob violence.
Earlier in the century, psychologists Gustave Le Bon and Sigmund Freud were developing influential theories of the group mind. As with contemporary accounts of mob mentality in the field of social psychology, Le Bon and Freud were interested in theorizing how people in crowds lose their sense of identity and carry out actions that would be deemed unacceptable when committed by individuals alone. These theories would take on new significance in the post-War era, with the collective violence of Nazism in the rearview.
In “The Lottery,” the anonymity of the setting and characters contributes to the sense that it is a psychological test case. There is even the suggestion that everyone, even Little Dave, must participate in the violence to make it acceptable. Jackson’s interest in psychology is palpable across her oeuvre, particularly in her masterful The Haunting of Hill House. With “The Lottery,” she expertly made use of the constraints of the short story structure to provide as little information as possible, which greatly contributes to the story’s examination of groupthink.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Theme: Invented Traditions and Mythic Thinking
In the short story, a good deal of space is devoted to the specific histories and rituals of the lottery. We learn how the ritual has altered in the years since its inception. But the townsfolk also make a concerted effort to maintain a link with tradition through the lottery. This dynamic between novelty and tradition provides Jackson an opportunity to explore the theme of invented traditions. The historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger coined the term “invented tradition” in the 1980s. They describe how most traditions we think of as ancient in origin are usually invented more recently. People use symbols and myths to confer the idea of tradition on newer practices and rituals. For instance, the villagers imagine that Mr. Summer’s black box is made from pieces of an even older box. This allows them to imagine that time-bound practices are more timeless.
Hobsbawm and Ranger argue that invented traditions are most apparent in the mythic thinking of nationalism. Though nations are relatively modern inventions, we use national symbols and myths to make them seem ancient. Similarly, the lottery helps cohere the community through a shared sense of earlier roots. The townsfolk are ready to sacrifice themselves in the lottery in the same way that citizens are valorized for sacrificing their lives for the nation. Through the invented tradition of the lottery, Jackson explores the way mythic thinking confers arbitrary events with moral significance. Although her characters alter the tradition to suit their whims, its link to vaguely defined origins ensures its continued value.
The Lottery Analysis: Patriarchal Violence, Romantic Nationalism, and Conformity in Post-War America
Jackson’s exploration of group psychology and invented traditions like nationalism has obvious historical significance. The story came immediately after World War II, when mob mentality and romantic nationalism plunged the globe into total war. The authoritarianism of Nazi Germany was bolstered by a sense of a shared tradition, where true citizens were mythically bound together by blood and connection to the land. Thus, Jackson’s story provocatively uses its bucolic, communitarian setting to explore dark, ultra-nationalist thought.
Why then was Jackson’s story so controversial for the American reading public? Alongside its rather off-putting cruelty, the story suggests fundamental parallels between aspects of democratic American culture and more authoritarian societies. It does this by eviscerating the legitimacy of any kind of nationalist culture. The titular lottery offers a microcosmic example of the human cost of invented national traditions. While many believed the loss of American lives in World War II was for a good cause, Jackson’s story suggests the deluded thinking that contributes to this self-sacrificial attitude. The real power of “The Lottery” comes from its refusal of specificity in setting. Through this, Jackson suggests that fascistic attitudes were more universalized than her audience liked to imagine.
The Lottery Analysis—Continued
“The Lottery” also draws attention to the role scapegoats play within communities. Societies, especially those organized around a sense of shared tradition, often persecute others to mark their limits. It seems to be no accident that the ultimate scapegoat of the lottery is a woman. We can glean from the story that this is a patriarchal culture, with families organized around adult men. Here again, Jackson draws disconcerting parallels between the masculinist, authoritarian culture of Nazi Germany and patriarchal U.S. culture. In both cases, women, along with ethnic and religious minorities, were oppressed to valorize male- and ethnocentric nations.
As a feminist text, “The Lottery” seems to stand out from earlier examples that draw attention to the plight of women while endorsing nationalist or racist attitudes. In this way, you might compare it to another famous short story: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In contrast to Gilman’s eugenicist views, the picture of Jackson we get from “The Lottery” is antagonistic to the host of ways masculinist society creates others to maintain legitimacy.
The Lottery Summary & Analysis—Conclusion
For an American culture high off its victory in the recent World War, Jackson’s story undeniably sounded a sour note. Against the prevailing self-congratulatory attitude, it sounded an alarm about the continued threat of nationalist mob mentality. And her readers should have listened. Two years after the story was published, McCarthyism reached a fever pitch in the U.S. Suspicion over who was sufficiently national, and who could be sacrificed to ensure the success of the nation, abounded. The cultural politics of the following decade became defined by a tendency toward conformity and hostility to difference. But arguably, we have continued to grapple as a society with these kinds of problems ever since.
Whether we locate ourselves in the post-9/11 era or in the recent resurgence of far-right nationalism, Jackson’s story unfortunately still resonates. It remains an endless curiosity for how it captured a late-40s zeitgeist, and an ominous warning of violence to come.