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Literature / The Lottery

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"Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon."

"The Lottery" is a horror short story written by Shirley Jackson, first published in The New Yorker in 1948 and included in her collection The Lottery and Other Stories the following year.

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 pageant. It is time for the town's annual lottery, which 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 really doesn't deserve the prize, but the whole community insists on giving it to her. After all, this is their annual tradition, and 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 meditation on the pointlessness of violence, the folly of blindly adhering to tradition, and the potential for inhumanity inside every person and community. Jackson received copious hate mail for it, readers unsubscribed from The New Yorker in disgust, and the story was banned in the Union of South Africa (the precursor to modern-day South Africa). Jackson famously responded to the latter by observing in an implicit swipe at that country's then-extant apartheid system  that they had at least understood the point of the story.

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. There have also been Shout Outs in other media, including in episodes of The Simpsons, South Park, and Squidbillies.

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.
  • City with No Name: The name and location of the town are never given.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: The townspeople. They assemble for the Lottery just because it's traditional, and once they themselves are safe, they dismiss the protests of the likely victim (who can see the noose tightening around her neck) as the plaints of a Sore Loser.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: The lottery is actually a ritualistic killing, and Tessie just happens to be the winner...
  • Culture Justifies Anything: "There's always been a Lottery."
  • Dirty Coward: Tessie tries to bring her daughter into the final drawing in order to better her chances, despite the fact that the daughter is lumped in with her husband's family.
  • 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 as early as the second paragraph, well before the revelation of the Lottery's real purpose and what the stones will be used for.
  • Folk Horror: An early example of one.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Old Man Warner, who grumbles that the lottery isn't what it used to be and that other towns have given up lotteries.
  • Harmful to Minors: The entire village population, both adults and children, participates in stoning the unlucky victim to death every year.
  • Human Sacrifice: Tessie is sacrificed. Why? Because it's tradition.
  • Jerkass: 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.
  • Karma Houdini: The other townspeople suffer no consequences for their actions. Even this year's victim must have helped kill dozens of past 'winners' without repercussions.
  • Lottery of Doom: Probably the most famous example of this trope in media.
  • 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.
    • Old Man Warner, who keeps complaining that the Lottery "isn't what it used to be", is perfectly happy to let it proceed.
  • Moral Myopia: Tessie has no problem with the Lottery happening and is even eager to participate, until her family is chosen.
  • Nonindicative Name: Many of the townsfolk have names with pleasant, harmless connotations. The Lottery Official is named Mr. Summers, for example.
  • Nobody Ever Complained Before: Subverted. The winner protests vigorously that it isn't fair, but the other townspeople just call her a sore loser... as they must have done every other time.
  • Offing the Offspring: When Tessie's family is chosen for the lottery, she tries to put forward her oldest daughter's name to be chosen to save herself.
  • Original Position Fallacy: No one strenuously objects to the Lottery except the winner. The rest of the townspeople actually get more comfortable with proceedings once it's clear that someone else will win.
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Babies smiling as they pick up pebbles to throw. Mothers putting stones in their kids' hands.
  • 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.
  • Self-Made Orphan: When Tessie is chosen by the lottery, someone gives little Davy a few pebbles so he can join the villagers in stoning his mother to death.
  • 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.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: It's just a small American town like any other...that just so happens to ritualistically kill someone every year. Dialogue implies this town isn't the only one to do it, so it's likely not a secret in this fictional setting.
  • 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.
    • Jackson based the story on folklore she'd been reading concerning human sacrifice and the scapegoat in traditional cultures. There was an incident involving which of two brothers would be it — that's where she came up with drawing lots. So it was real, just transplanted to modern America.
    • She even received a letter from a woman who had relatives in a Holiness church called the Exalted Rollers, saying that a similar story was told in that faith, but more as a warning about atomic war as punishment for sin.
  • 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...' It's more like Lovecraft Country, and was based on her own town.
  • 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. While the villagers seem a little relieved when he's not selected, there's no question of what would have happened if he won...