Book Report: The Lottery By Shirley Jackson

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Introduction

A lottery is a means of raising money by selling numbered tickets and giving prizes to the holders of numbers drawn at random. Happiness and joy are what you would expect after winning a lottery, but this isn’t the case in the story chosen. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is a short story about a fictional American town which participates in an annual ceremony known as “the lottery” where one human sacrificial victim is to be stoned to death to ensure the community’s continued well-being. The story demonstrates conformity and rebellion, whilst suggesting that the lottery is a ritualistic ceremony. Shirley Jackson’s use of tools such as irony, setting, structure, symbolism, imagery and characterisation make the story engaging and effective. The theme Jackson focuses on is Traditions and Customs, specifically “People will blindly follow tradition without questioning it or its outcomes”.

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Brief summary of author

Shirley Jackson was an American author, born on the 14th of December 1916. She was known primarily for her short stories in the genres of mystery and horror fiction. Her most notable books include The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, which have now both been turned into movies and tv shows. The Lottery was published by The New Yorker in 1948, it has since become one of the most famous short stories in American literature. The book caused such an uproar, subscriptions were cancelled and hate mail was received by the publication. The book was so gruesome that The Union of South Africa banned it.

Irony

Jackson uses irony throughout the story. Dramatic irony occurs before we begin reading, as we associate a lottery with the prize being good and pleasant. The day starts off beautiful, yet before the day has concluded someone will be stoned to death. The characters in the story know of it, but we don’t. Jackson classifies the lottery in the same category as other harmless things, and we trust her word.

We assume a joyous event but instead, we are presented with a public stoning. When Mr Summers wants to ensure everyone is there, it isn’t because he wants everyone to have an opportunity to win, it is because everyone is equally at risk of death. The narrator ironically states that despite the fact, no one remembers why they must stone one of their citizens to death annually, they just remembered to use stones.

Setting

The author has limited the location of the Lottery to a village in America. Jackson references to different towns that hold lotteries, this contributes that Jackson isn’t talking about one community, but instead is criticising society. The lottery’s temporal setting is set on June 27th at around 10 am. Shirley Jackson moved into a small town, Bennington, Vermont, where she was never accepted and was an outsider to the community. It has been noted that many believe the setting has been influenced by Jackson’s personal experiences.

Structure

The plot of The Lottery is simple and easy to read, yet it creates powerful emotions and discussions. In the story, a town participates in an annual lottery which through drawings and elimination, one person is chosen to be stoned to death. Clearly, some citizens are uncomfortable with this but go along with the crowd committing the crime of stoning an innocent woman to death with no justification.

Jackson starts the story with a detailed exposition describing the setting and foreshadows an important event which will take place in the village. The colourful and polished style that Jackson uses hides the events that are about to happen. The menacing and wicked practice of the Lottery is intended to kill people which is completely different from the happy and colourful description that is given to us from the beginning.

The remainder of the story is written in chronological order. The process of the Lottery is addressed in detail and the significance of the event is highlighted, however, there is never a hint of any justification behind it. Therefore, the Lottery is structured in an identical manner as a traditional short story with a clear orientation, complication and resolution.

Symbolism and imagery

The author uses symbolism and imagery to create a theme that proposes the indecent and coldhearted nature of tradition and the risks of it being carried out with obliviousness. The story is compelling with respect to tradition and violence. Jackson shows how coldness and lack of sympathy in people can be exhibited in circumstances regarding tradition and values. Symbolism and imagery are used throughout the setting, objects and the names of the contestants.

The day of the Lottery is described as joyful but contrasts between the surroundings of the town and the atmosphere of the people gathered in the square. The setting of the Lottery is located at the same place as the square dances, teenage club and the Halloween program. This is symbolic, as in our lives we can relate to those types of events even though this disastrous event occurs at the same place of celebration.

The black box is one of the most significant objects in the story. When the subject of replacing the box comes up, the villagers are reluctant to replace it because it had a physical connection to the tradition of the lottery as it was the original box and in a way, was a part of their history. This shows that the purpose of the box, like the lottery itself, has become clouded over time. The box is painted in black which has been a common symbol of evil and death. Jackson expresses that we don’t always enjoy change even if it benefits us. The author reveals the black box is symbolic of hatred of change, pointing out although the box is splintered and old the village still uses it. This shows that we hold onto what we’re accustomed to rather than change.

In the story, Jackson introduces characters whose names are symbolic and foreshadows the climax and ending. Mrs Delacroix’s name derives from de la Croix which means ‘of the cross’ in Latin which hints Tessie’s sacrificial killing. Mr Graves draws the papers from the box. His name symbolises that he has the most influence over whose grave will be next. His name hints at what will happen to Tessie Hutchinson. Old Man Warner warns the villagers of the danger of stopping the yearly ritual, although he seems to be uninformed of what the danger is and blindly follows tradition. Jackson’s use of symbolism is one of the key elements that make the story engaging and effective.

Characterisation

Jackson uses characterisation throughout the story; the main examples being Tessie Hutchinson and Old Man Warner. Tessie shows the hypocrisy of the free spirit. She seems lighthearted and happy at the start but when she turns out to be the victim she protests the unfairness of the lottery. Presuming she believed the lottery was unfair from the start, why didn’t she leave, and if she was so against the lottery why would she come to it? Her character is portrayed as selfish and cowardly. She was willing to force her married daughter into the second drawing to increase her chance of survival.

Old Man Warner, the village’s elder who has been in 77 lotteries, hints at why the lottery exists saying, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”. The community thought of the lottery as a fertility ritual. The death of a citizen would help continue the growth of crops and maintain the village’s wellbeing. Old Man Warner is superstitious when younger generations talk about discontinuing the lottery and claims, “Pack of young fools”, “There’s always been a lottery”. Old Man Warner’s character is tradition-bound. He believes if the lottery stops the village’s success and well being will go back to primitive times. The lottery has been continued and passed down through generations because of people like Old Man Warner who have blindly followed tradition without question. The village’s motivation with the lottery is due to peer pressure and tradition. The social structure has deemed that someone will die every year and no one questions it.

Conclusion

Overall, The Lottery is an engaging and effective example of a short story. The story demonstrates conformity and rebellion, whilst suggesting that the lottery is a ritualistic ceremony. The use of elements such as irony, symbolism, imagery, foreshadowing and suspense intrigues readers. The Lottery has parallels in both fiction and real-life events. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a woman was ordered to death by stoning for endangering her daughter. As of April 4th 2019, the King of Brunei introduced a law where gay sex and adultery would be punishable by stoning to death. The Lottery focuses on the theme of “People will blindly follow tradition without questioning it or its outcomes”. It critiques those who follow authority without justification and make decisions without questioning it. The Lottery poses a question – “Should old traditions be continued even if they are hostile, inhumane and violent?”.  

16 December 2021

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