The Lottery & The Rocking Horse Winner Compare & Contrast Essay


Everyone lives in a culture, where cultural norms, expectations, and traditions dictate what a fortunate or happy life is. They can choose to ignore these pressures or conform to them. Two authors, Shirley Jackson and David Herbert Lawrence in their short stories The Lottery and The Rocking Horse Winner explore the theme of the dangers of blindly following traditional or cultural norms. In these stories, characters base their happiness on such norms but find their desires twisted ironically.

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In The Lottery, the titular event plays a central role. A lottery in which an entire village participates but whose stakes remain undisclosed until the very end. It is presented by various characters as a tradition that has survived generations changing in minor details, but remaining the same at the core. None of the characters touch on its meaning or its causes, keeping these details vague enough that it can be viewed as a metaphor for nearly any tradition one deems unfair. They allude to it being an important, maybe even a crucial part of life, but no one elaborates on why they think so. Nonetheless, they condemn neighboring villages that have given up the tradition as a “pack of crazy fools” (Jackson, p. 4). This theme is explored as the characters discuss the event as it goes on and names are called out in the background.

Only at the end of the story are the stakes of the Lottery revealed: the other villages brutally stone the “lucky winner” to death. This ironically inverts the entire meaning of a lottery, as now the “winner” loses, and the “losers” win. The villagers’ mundane reactions to such a grim event, and even the sunny weather it takes place in further this irony. As the unfortunate Mrs. Hutchinson pleads and argues that “it isn’t fair,” the readers wonder whether she is trying to bargain with an uncaring force of luck, or really saw some unfair manipulation (Jackson, p. 5). The author does not elaborate on these claims and accusations, but they still remind readers that an authority upholding a tradition can be twisting in their interest.

Ultimately, the story illustrates how cruel and pointless a tradition can be when it persists unchallenged. This Lottery is, nevertheless, linked with the village’s fortune, as Old Man Warner mentions a saying “about Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (Jackson, p. 4). Once again, Jackson draws attention to the theme of tradition by mentioning another common element of an established cultural pattern. In the end, every villager is a murderer, in his or her mind absolved of his or her guilt as tradition and luck were guiding their actions. The only crime their victim is guilty of is being unlucky enough to win the Lottery.

In contrast, The Rocking Horse Winner defines the same theme of conforming to expectations more subtly. Mentioned briefly and in passing, basing their life on cultural expectations put on them by their social class insidiously, but profoundly, affects the central characters. The woman, who does not have a name, is at the center of the story’s discussion of the theme. It would seem that she is fortunate as she is “beautiful, … started with all the advantages, … married for love, [and] had bonny children” (Lawrence, p. 1). One would expect these things to bring her happiness, but they do not. The theme of conformity is explored less directly than in The Lottery, through the consequences that her life choices and attitudes have on others, specifically, her son Paul.

She bases her happiness on materialistic cultural expectations; although the story never describes her family as poor, they do not have “nearly enough [money] for the social position which they had to keep up” (Lawrence, p. 1). As she struggles to maintain this social standing, she blames it on “[having] no luck” (Lawrence, p. 1). This pressure prevents her from enjoying what she has, even loving her children, and manifests itself in her constant need for “more money” (Lawrence, p. 1). At one point, she is dissatisfied with earning a moderate amount of money for her work, when she compares herself to a friend (Lawrence, p. 11). She allowed social expectations to define her values instead of considering the advantages she had or thinking about what would make her happy.

The theme of conformity is explored further through Paul and the effect that the expectations placed on his mother have on him. He is the one to suffer most for his mother’s ideals. He is young, and in his eagerness to help her in the only way she taught him — by having good luck and obtaining wealth — conforms to the same expectations by proxy. There is irony in the fact that when she gets her first birthday gift of a thousand pounds, it is not enough. This luck she had always wished for fails to bring her happiness; neither does claim the rest of the money she was meant to receive over the following four years. She spends it frivolously, only exacerbating the issues and making Paul abuse his luck and exhaust himself more and more in his attempts to please her. Thus, by following his flawed understanding of his mother’s flawed ideals, Paul fails to bring happiness to either. It is only with his death and realization of the source of her sudden, but misspent, windfall that she can begin to understand what she was missing her entire life.

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Irony permeates both stories, as the characters’ perceptions of fortune and happiness are shaped by the expectations placed on them by their surroundings; luck plays a central part in these perceptions. However, in The Lottery, the idea of luck is twisted when the “winner” receives a brutal death at the hands of his or her friends and neighbors. The reasons for this are never explained as the Lottery is a tradition that has persisted unchallenged for generations. In The Rocking Horse Winner, the irony is in the fact that the characters never realize what they need to be happy. Their wishes fail to bring happiness, and even when the woman finally receives luck, which for her is “what causes you to have money,” by proxy of her son, she is not happy (Jackson, p. 2). Only when she loses him at the end can she understand that happiness is not only maintaining her social standing through wealth.


Ultimately, both stories show situations where blindly following traditions and other people’s expectations of one lead to unhappiness and misfortune. In both situations, the characters ironically fail to understand things that are obvious or evident to the reader. In both cases, conformity to social pressures leads to a character’s death, although under vastly different circumstances. However, the death in The Lottery is futile as it gives the villagers no reason to question their views; in The Rocking Horse Winner, Paul’s death may cause the woman to reevaluate her life. The final message is that basing one’s happiness on the external pressures of tradition and social expectations can be dangerous and harmful not only to oneself but to others as well.

Works Cited

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery.

Lawrence, David Herbert. The Rocking Horse Winner.

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