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Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: Human Cruelty


Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was published in 1948 during the rebuilding of the world after World War II. Almost all the post-war period literature is, to one degree or another, devoted to understanding the consequences of what happened during 1939-1945. One of the cruelest and most inhumane episodes of the conflict was the mass genocide of the Jewish people called the Holocaust. In her story, the author reflects on the boundaries and potential of human cruelty, using a stylistic and semantic opposition of the beginning and end of the storyline.

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The story’s main event is “The Lottery” held in a particular village every year as a tradition. The beginning of the story is full of factual information, and the opening lines convey the atmosphere of a sunny summer day when residents begin to gather in the square in the morning. Lexical units explicitly share the description of the carefree environment with a usually positive connotation: “clear and sunny”, “abundantly blooming”, “dense green” (Anderson & Kröger, 2016). The lottery appears to be an ordinary event that cannot distract the villagers from their daily worries.

The beginning of the story sets the reader up to perceive the narrative about a joint event in the villagers’ lives. A neutral description of the situation does not portend anything unusual or scary. However, as the plot develops, the expectation of danger becomes the dominant emotion. The dire psychological state of lottery participants is transmitted to each other gradually, with repeated repetition of the adjective “nervous”, the epithet “breathless pause”, and others. Therefore, in the plot development, the word “lottery” implies a win, but the positive emotions associated with it will acquire an utterly different semantic meaning

In the semantic structure of the story, the sign of danger and fear comes to the fore. As a result, the lottery winner is stoned to death by the villagers with stones prepared for this purpose. The end of the story preserves the sense of the ritual’s commonness for the lottery participants, which makes the bloody murder scene especially cruel (Eaton, 2019). A signal of the contrast between the ending and the opening is the carefree situation’s description at the beginning and the bloody murder scene at the end.

It should be noted that negatively colored vocabulary is present only when describing the horror of the dying victim. It is said that “she held her hands out desperado”, “Mrs. Hutchinson screamed” (Jackson, 1948, para. 9), while the murder scene itself is devoid of words denoting cruelty or violence. In this regard, attention is drawn to the correlation of the following lexical units describing the characters of the story: if in the beginning they are referred to simply as “people of the village”, in the end – “the crowd of villagers” (Philp, 2020).

The semantic volume of the word “crowd” contains in its meaning negative connotations rather than positive ones. In this context, the term “crowd” in combination with the word “villagers” acquires an exceptional semantic capacity and gives a negative connotation to the designation of actors’ faces, emphasizing the contrast between the calm mood of the characters at the beginning and their aggressiveness at the end of the story.

In terms of analyzing the details of the storyline, it is possible to highlight several vital phenomena linked to the Holocaust issue. The author connects patriarchal violence and anti-Semitism through massive consent to choosing one person against whom violence will be used by exploiting elements such as pitting neighbors against each other, and selecting of “suitable” and “unsuitable” people to continue life. This correlates with the brutality of the Nazi regime, in which the sophistication of the murder method served no purpose other than to satisfy the bloodlust. As with concentration camp violence, the sophisticated murder process in “The Lottery” masks a more brutal and aimless one.

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The composure with which the villagers participate in the lottery demonstrates a complete detachment from any social obligations and connections. The critical point for them is the possibility of a collective act of violence while using the format of a long tradition: “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (Jackson, 1948, para. 1).

It should be noted that the residents are not personally responsible for the murder of the person. Having learned who the “winner” is, they massively throw stones at the person, which allows them not to single out the guilty one and continue their existence. In this, one can also see a correlation with the realities of wartime, especially the genocide of the Jewish people, in which inhuman cruelty was manifested in massacres. Even though individual commanders issued orders, many soldiers were involved at one moment, which allowed them to deny responsibility for their actions morally.


In conclusion, Shirley Jackson in her story “The Lottery” asks the reader about the limits and goals of human cruelty. In 1948, it directly referred to the most tragic and horrifying moments of the Second World War. The writer achieves the brutality of the moment through the lexical and semantic opposition of the beginning and end of the plot. Reflections on the horrors of the Holocaust are manifested through the random selection of the victim. The mass murder allows residents to relinquish personal responsibility for their actions, which will enable them to continue the bloody tradition from year to year.


Anderson, M. R., & Kröger, L. (Eds.). (2016). Shirley Jackson, influences and confluences. Routledge.

Eaton, T. (2019). The semantics of literature (vol. 1). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Jackson, S. (1948). The lottery. The New Yorker. Web.

Philp, H. (2020). Reading and writing with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. Changing English, 27(3), 255-261. Web.

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