A Careful Look at "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
By Elton Gahr
"The Lottery" is a story that is hard to ignore. Both loved and hated by many, this story is able to create emotion in nearly everyone who reads it. It is a story that is as much fun to think about as it is to read. Learn how the author uses foreshadowing, irony and deep themes.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson first appeared in the New Yorker in 1948. A modern parable, this story is often classified as a horror story. It tells the story of a small town that holds a lottery each year. The person picked by this lottery is then stoned to death by the town.
Considered by many to be one of the best short stories of the 20th century and banned by many others, this is not an easy story to understand because it leaves so many questions unanswered. For example, the reason that the lottery exists is never explained. This forces the reader to think more carefully about the story and supply many of the answers.
Because the story of "The Lottery" holds back on revelation of what is happening so long it is vital that it uses foreshadowing to prepare the reader. The reader has to feel the cohesion of the story in ways that are easy to miss in the first reading. Without this, the end of the story will feel far more like being blindsided than it does a twist.
The first example of foreshadowing in "The Lottery" takes place in the second paragraph. It reads, “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones.". There is no explanation of this at this point in the story and most readers will miss the significance of those actions because they don’t understand them, but it makes the end of the story a realization rather than a surprise.
There are many signs of the tension of the day throughout the story, but most of them more subtle than piles of rocks. The men smile rather than laugh and moments of hesitation fill this story. This creates an undercurrent of dread which is the core of this story and becomes even more powerful when the reader feels those reactions without knowing he or she is feeling it.
Theme: The Scapegoat
One of the most interesting points of “The Lottery" is the exploration of the reason the lottery in the story exists. The choice of the author to not explain this is one of the most important choices in the story. Perhaps the most interesting of the theories on the lottery's meaning is the simple idea of the scapegoat. The basic idea of the scapegoat has existed since the early days of Judaism. In that tradition it was literally a goat, but the idea is to sacrifice a single person for the sins of the society is generally how it has been used metaphorically.
Beyond this literal idea of being sacrificed for the sins of others is a more general idea that people need to have someone to blame or hate. The idea being that by being able to simply heap all of their aggression onto one person they are able to free themselves of it for another year.
Whether either of these is true or not, the ambiguity left by the author as to the reasons for the lottery is one of the most important themes of this story, because the fact that the people of the town don’t know the reason for the lottery is vital to the point that the story is trying to make.
Beyond that of the scapegoat and humankind's basic nature, the other theme of this story is one of tradition. Specifically, it is commenting on those things that people do simply because that is what has always been done. These can range from harmless traditions such as easter egg hunts and Christmas trees to far more harmful traditions such as racism, sexism, and even war. Even in this very dark story though, the author does hold out some hope. There are people in other villages who have abandoned the lottery and eventually perhaps this town will change as well. But that change, like all important changes, won't be fast or easy.
There are a number of excellent examples of dramatic irony in the story. The basic idea of the lottery as something, which in our society is generally a good thing, being evil is the chief irony of the story. This helps to strengthen both the surprise and horror of the story. In addition, it helps to keep the reader from catching onto the basic idea of the story.
Just as important is the irony that is found just over halfway through the story. At this point, two men are discussing a town that has stopped performing the lottery. The older of the two men says “Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves." This idea of being uncivilized because they will not perform an act that the reader almost certainly will find uncivilized is vital to the basic idea of the story.
The core of the story of "The Lottery" is in its symbols. Nearly everything in the story is symbolic. The most basic of these symbols being the lottery itself. This can represent a number of different ideas, but the most basic is that of tradition and specifically unquestioned traditions. Traditions like this exist as much in our society as that of "The Lottery". Many of them are simple and unimportant like Christmas trees and far more sinister ones such as racism and sexism are still troublesome today and were even bigger problems in 1948 when this story was published. The difficulty of all of these is that they are far harder to see in our own society than in those we are less familiar with. This is one of the values of "The Lottery". By removing us from our own comfortable traditions we can see the dangers easier.
The method of execution is also clearly symbolic. Stoning is one of the few methods of execution that is done by a community. It is also connected to Christian and Jewish traditions and in is involved in many of the stories and martyr’s deaths. Most important, by choosing stoning it makes it clear that it is the society, and not an individual, that is the protagonist.
Considered my many to be one of the best stories of the twentieth century, it is almost certainly one of the most thought-provoking. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson uses a number of literary devices to create a story that is almost impossible to forget. It is filled with symbolism, irony and a clear understanding of how to tell a story as well as willingness to embrace controversy.