Literature: The Lottery

"The Lottery" is a short story written by Shirley Jackson, first published in The New Yorker in 1948.

It's June 27th. A small American village of roughly three hundred people has prepared for this day as if it were another celebration, like a square dance or a Halloween program. This event, the titular lottery, consists of selecting a family, then an individual, from the slips of paper concealed inside a splintery black box which has been used many times before. The winner (in this instance, a woman) is surprised to be selected and protests that she doesn't deserve the prize, but the whole community, impelled by the weight of tradition, insists on giving it to her. After all, a good harvest is at stake. Cue the stones.

It would be any other quaint story if it weren't for the heavy symbolism. The story is Shirley Jackson's views on the pointlessness of violence and the inhumanity in the world, in each and every person and their own neighbors. Shirley Jackson received much hate mail for it, readers unsubscribed from The New Yorker, and the story was banned in the Union of South Africa (the precursor to modern-day South Africa).

It is probably best known today as a staple of American junior high/middle school literature classes. It has been adapted into many kinds of media, such as radio, one-act plays, short films, a 1969 ballet, and a successful 1996 Made-for-TV Movie. Shout Outs in other media are not uncommon, such as The Simpsons and South Park as well as Squid Billies.

Read it here.

Not to be confused with the completely unrelated post-apocalyptic TV series The Lottery.

Tropes featured in the short story:

  • Affably Evil: It's not entirely clear whether the townsfolk count more under this than Faux Affably Evil below. The whole scene has a very polite, middle-class Americana sort of feel about it, and it's heavily implied that some find at least some parts of the Lottery distasteful (and Old Man Warner is certainly cynical about its meaning) and wouldn't do it under any other circumstances, but continue to do it here because, well, it's tradition. To some readers, this thought makes them more creepy.
  • Asshole Victim: Tessie, who was perfectly happy with the lottery right up until it started to look like she might "win."
  • Culture Justifies Anything: "There's always been a Lottery."
  • The Cynic: Old Man Warner, oh so very much.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The townsfolk are noticeably relieved when the chosen sacrifice is one of the adult Hutchinsons, rather than one of the children.
  • Evil Old Folks: Whilst not exactly evil, Old Man Warner is one of the Lottery's staunchest supporters (even though he's cynical about its actual role). He thinks that the other towns who don't do this sort of thing any more are all a pack of fools. Although he does think they're doing the ceremony bit wrong.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The majority of the townsfolk. Friendly, seemingly normal people... who don't bat an eyelid at stoning someone to death.
  • Foreshadowing: Stones are mentioned several times long before the revelation of the Lottery's ending.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Old Man Warner.
  • Human Sacrifice: Tessie is sacrificed to make the corn harvest plentiful.
  • Hypocrite: Tessie's protests that the lottery "isn't right" are somewhat reasonable... if, earlier, she hadn't been perfectly happy to let the lottery proceed as it always has.
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted. In-story, it's played straight, but when someone draws the spotted paper, everyone in their family must draw again to see which one of them will die-even the toddler.
  • It's All About Me: Tessie is happy to let the Lottery proceed until she thinks it might select her.
  • Jerk Ass: The majority of the townsfolk in the story are not nice people.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Old Man Warner's laundry list of complaints against society actually come off as somewhat reasonable, considering what it's implied the mayor is using the lottery as an excuse to do.
    • Tessie is completely correct to insist that what's happening is neither fair not right. She's just wrong about why it's not right.
  • Lottery of Doom: Well, yeah.
  • Meaningful Name: Mr. and Mrs. Delacroix, which means "Of the cross" in French. There's also a family named Graves, whose patriarch helps run the Lottery.
  • Moral Myopia:
    • Tessie seems well and eager to let the lottery proceed as it always has... up until her chances to get stoned to death suddenly become very likely.
    • Old Man Warner, who was complaining that the lottery "isn't what it used to be", is perfectly happy to let it proceed.
  • Nobody Ever Complained Before: The lottery continues to exist because no one questioned it until now. It's implied that it was once a sort of harvest ritual from many ages ago; "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon."
  • Nonindicative Name: Many of the townsfolk have names with pleasant, harmless connotations. The Lottery Official is named Mr Summers, for example.
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Babies smiling as they pick up pebbles to throw.
  • Regularly Scheduled Evil: June 27th of every year.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Here's a comprehensive list of what each element means... supposedly.
  • Rule of Three: The three-legged chair can be interpreted as anything. ANYTHING.
  • School Study Media: Guaranteed to be the one short story in class that you actually remember reading.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: On the cynical side. Every line Old Man Warner speaks is a complaint against society.
  • Tomato Surprise: The nature of the lottery isn't revealed until the very end of the story.
  • TV Never Lies: Many readers wrote to the author to express their disgust at the fact that this sort of thing was happening in the modern world. Yes, it's fiction, in the strongest sense of the word.
    • Not that women being stoned to death for no good reason isn't something that happens in the modern world, of course. In some places, it's even the case that laws permitting such acts really are only kept around because of tradition.
  • Uncanny Village: At the beginning of the story, you'd think the town was located somewhere in Arcadia. About halfway through the story we start getting hints that the lottery may be something darker than 'just a tradition...'
  • Would Hurt a Child: The youngest person seen taking part in the lottery is a tiny toddler who needs to be coaxed up to the box and requires a responsible adult to hold his paper for him.