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The Meaning of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery” as a short story, and it was published on June 26, 1948, in The New Yorker. The first readers of the story were surprised by it because, in the past, works of the magazine were not identified as fiction or as events happening in real life. The story presents a fictional village that conducts the annual ritual “the lottery” on June 27 when the villagers gather together for this tradition. Everything appears ordinary at first until one of the characters wins the lottery and starts protesting, and it becomes clear that no one wants to be the winner. In the end, the winner is stoned to death by other villagers.

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The positive description in the first paragraphs of the story contrasts with the terrifying outcome in the conclusion. The plot begins with a pleasant mood, on a beautiful summer day, and, through contrasts, which the author uses, it achieves its shocking end. At the beginning of the narration, the morning of June 27 is described as “clear and sunny” with the flowers “blossoming profusely” and the grass “richly green” (Jackson, 1948, para. 1). The act of collecting stones is not accentuated but shown as a usual behavior when the village boys make “a great pile of stones in one corner of the square” (Jackson, 1948, para. 2). The weather being fine and the families smiling and talking lead the readers to think that it is a usual day, and the word “lottery” sounds hopeful. The peaceful atmosphere of the gathering grows tense when the author gives a vague answer to what the winner of the lottery will receive. The casual chatter and jokes of the villagers as they laugh “softly,” and the picturesque setting suggest at first that nothing immoral can happen (Jackson, 1948, para. 8). The author tries to confuse the reader with the conversation of the gatherers who discuss “planting and rain, tractors and taxes,” and nothing out of the ordinary is implied (Jackson, 1948, para. 3). The lottery itself is compared to “the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program” navigated by Mr. Summers (Jackson, 1948, para. 4). The violence and the murder that happen at the end of the story do not correlate to such civil activities. As the story progresses, there are more hints of the negative finale the author of the short story implies. Jackson leaves clues indicating that something is wrong as the beautiful summer day emerges into the stressful and quiet atmosphere when the villagers start drawing pieces of paper from the black box. The first indication is seen in the way people keep “their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool” where the lottery box is placed (Jackson, 1948, para. 4). There is also “a hesitation between two men” whom Mr. Summers asks to help carry the stool (Jackson, 1948, para. 4). The reaction seems out of the ordinary coming from the gatherers who are supposed to be looking forward to the lottery. Another strange matter of the event is the fact that only heads of families, men, stand before the box to take pieces of paper as if this act is too difficult for women and children. When the boy from the Watson family decides to draw for his family, specifically his mother, someone pronounces that they are glad she has “got a man to do it” (Jackson, 1948, para. 16). We see that men or boys do the lottery, and the women just watch for a matter of time. The lottery is conducted in a very habitual and ordinary manner. As people draw folded pieces of paper, most of them are “quiet, wetting their lips, not looking around” (Jackson, 1948, para. 20). The crowd remains calm as if anticipating something, yet it is presented not in a positive way when the villagers and Mr. Summers grin at one another “humorlessly and nervously” (Jackson, 1948, para. 20). At first, such details seem odd, and we think that people are simply nervous because they want to win the lottery. In the end, though, when Tessie Hutchinson’s husband becomes the winner, she screams that “it wasn’t fair” (Jackson, 1948, para. 46). The reader then realizes there has always been an undercurrent of violence in the story.

Every individual can interpret the meaning behind the lottery differently. One of the main reasons as to why this event is conducted lies in the words of one of the villagers. During the procedure, Mr. Adams and Old Man Warner discuss why they still do it each year, despite the fact that another village wants to stop it (Jackson, 1948). Mr. Adams says that some places “have already quit lotteries,” to which Old Man Warner answers that “lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (Jackson, 1948, para. 33-34). This statement suggests the folk believes that the ritual will bring a rich harvest. The annual act of murdering a villager in this way reminds of a sacrifice to please the gods so that they would give people heavy crops. In my opinion, delivering such an event as the lottery is not beneficial for anyone and does not mean anything good in it. The crowd is assured that the death of a person will “feed” them, but it seems that this belief is not based on anything but assumption and hope. Old Man Warner states that it is the “seventy-seventh time” he has participated in the lottery (Jackson, 1948, para. 41). The reader can assume that the event has been conducted for about a century, maybe even more, meaning the society within the village has not evolved through the ages. It is indeed a bad circumstance when something does not let people evolve, when a slack period continues for years, especially when it brings the death of individuals with it.

During the lottery, we can see that not only the adults participate in the event, but their children as well. The youth do it if the family consists of a mother and a son, and the boy draws for his parent. If the head of the family does not come due to circumstances, then either a woman or her male kid participates in it. If the householder has a piece of paper with a black dot, meaning he wins the lottery, the whole family, including the children, draws to choose the winner within it. By the end of it, the kids, even the youngest ones like little Davy Hutchinson, whom they give few pebbles to, throw stones at the villager who “takes the prize.” I think it is not right for the youth in the story to have been forced to participate in the event. Especially it is not fair for the children of the Hutchinson family who have to throw stones at their mother because the rules of the lottery make them do it. Forcing young people to participate is not only cruel but also persuades them to believe that the event is good and that it must be held annually. In this way, the society will never evolve within the village, and the generations after this one will keep conducting the lottery anyway.

Even though the lottery is described as an event that is operated in a very natural and casual way, we can still sense how tense the atmosphere within the crowd is. Optimistic chattering and jokes of the villagers are mixed with the hesitation and the distress once the lottery proceeds further. Mr. Summers keeps his positive attitude throughout the event, but the discomfort of the participants can be seen in the way they act, especially at the end of the lottery when the winner is chosen. If I were to participate in the lottery as one of the villagers who are already used to this occurrence, I would probably feel nervous but try to stay relaxed due to my knowledge. If I were there for the first time, as a foreigner and as someone who has never seen and done something so cruel and violent, I would be frightened. It would also cause me to panic and try to think of ways to escape this gathering. Even though for people of the fictional village, the lottery does not occur as something out of the ordinary, for us, the real society, something like this would be compared to madness.

In my opinion, the characters that strike the attention are Tessie Hutchinson, whom I like the most in the short story, and Old Man Warner, the least favorite villager. Mrs. Hutchinson, upon her death, has nothing else to lose, thus, she is not scared to tell the crowd that the lottery “isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (Jackson, 1948, para. 80). It seems as if she is the first one to speak so loudly about the whole event, though it does not save her from stones. This character pronounces the truth and with the words about unfairness she implies that the lottery should be stopped. Old Man Warner represents the past generation which believes that the old ways are better. It is easy to dislike this character because the way he speaks makes it appear that because of such people as him the community does not evolve. Throughout his conversation with another villager, Old Man Warner keeps calling young people who want to stop conducting the lottery “pack of crazy fools” (Jackson, 1948, para. 33). He believes that the lottery is the only way to make sure that the village will prosper, and he does not think it is evil to murder other villagers for this matter. By the end of the story, we realize that the main theme of the short story is violence. The author even states that “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (Jackson, 1948, para. 77). Every villager participates in the murder; thus, no one individually takes responsibility for it. It is one of the reasons in the context as to why this violent tradition is still an annual matter.

Reference

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

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