The Lottery by Shirley Jackson: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:04 A Look at 'The Lottery'
  • 0:56 Analysis
  • 1:57 Themes
  • 3:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Megan Dolan

Megan has taught a wide variety of subjects at the K-12 and university level. She has a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction.

Expert Contributor
Marc Mancinelli

Marc is a long-time HS English teacher and has taught at the college level. He has a master's degree in literature and a doctorate in education.

'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson, a twisted tale of village culture, has been thrilling audiences for three generations. In this lesson, we'll review this classic short story from 1948 and analyze the thematic elements.

A Look at 'The Lottery'

Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' is a classic American short story known for its shocking twist ending and its insightful commentary on cultural traditions. It was originally printed in The New Yorker magazine in 1948.

The tale begins with all the villagers gathering in the town square for the annual lottery (that's not the twist), as if it were just another day. Children are playing with stones while the adults swap stories of farming and gossip. It's not until the lottery begins, over halfway through the story, that we start to suspect that all is not as it seems.

The real key is when the 'winner,' Tessie, declares that it isn't fair that she won. Spoiler alert: It turns out that the stones the children were playing with at the start of the story will be used for a ritual stoning, and the winner will be killed by the town (that's the twist).

Analysis of 'The Lottery'

Once the true nature of the lottery is revealed, the text can be viewed in a new light, much like the Sixth Sense becomes an entirely different movie once you know the ending. Jackson has used foreshadowing to hint at the ominous ending, dropping a few hints about the story's twist in the opening scene.

While the children collecting stones at the beginning of the story appears to be a game, it is in fact setting the stage for a communal murder. The first time Tessie protests, Mrs. Delacroix and Mrs. Graves tell her to be a good sport, as if it were something less than her life on the line. Even their names -- Delacroix, meaning of the cross, and Graves -- foreshadow the fatal twist ahead.

Finally, when Tessie's children reveal that they have not been chosen, they both 'beam and laugh,' glossing over the fact that it means death for another family member. In fewer than 3,500 words, Jackson has taken the reader from an idyllic small town awaiting the start of an annual celebration to a brutal and yet totally acceptable stoning.

Themes in 'The Lottery'

While the story of 'The Lottery' embodies several themes, its primary focus is a society's need to reexamine its traditions, especially if they are outdated and savage. The lottery appears to be a ritual sacrifice of a town citizen to ensure good crops, although the word 'sacrifice' is never used in the story.

Old Man Warner, 'the oldest man in town,' references an old saying, 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' He also comments throughout the tale on the folly of youth, wanting to change everything. When someone also notes that other towns are talking about giving up the lottery and that some already have, Warner calls them a pack of crazy fools. This also lets us know that this is not the only town with a lottery. In fact, the setting is pointedly vague, as though it could take place anywhere, anytime.

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Additional Activities

Reflection and Discussion Questions for "The Lottery"

1) Describe the time and setting of the town in the first two paragraphs—why might the author have chosen to develop a picture of town life as it is outlined here?

2) In the story we see evidence that the lottery's original rituals have been forgotten over time. For example, Jackson writes, "The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago," and "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; 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."

What importance is there to the idea that the townspeople no longer remembered the origin or specifics of the lottery, yet conduct it anyway each year?

3) What purpose does Old Man Warner serve in the story? Explain Old Man Warner's comment in the dialogue below:

"The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, 'I hope it's not Nancy,' and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd. 'It's not the way it used to be,' Old Man Warner said clearly. 'People ain't the way they used to be.'"

4) Even the children of the town participate in the stoning, including Davy, who must stone his own mother ("The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.") What does this say about the society of "The Lottery"?

5) Compare and contrast the name-drawing sequence in "The Lottery" with the name-drawing in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. What do the differences in these scenes say about the people involved?

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