Close Read: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery is a short story by Shirely Jackson, first published in The New Yorker in 1948. It contains many classic folk horror tropes, and is an interesting story because of the way it fools the reader into thinking something else is happening, almost until the end.

Warning: contains spoilers.

The story opens just before the annual village lottery, for which the villagers assemble in the square to witness the swearing-in of the official, followed by the draw.

Everything is bright and summery in the opening paragraph, with plenty of nostalgia and positivity, but the second paragraph mentions how the feeling of liberty that comes with summer holidays sits uneasily with the children, perhaps planting a seed that something isn’t quite right. There is also mention of some of the children carrying heavy stones around in pockets, building a pile of them in the corner of the square. This will obviously serve some purpose later in the story.

We are introduced to Mr Summers, who has time for civic duties such as running the lottery, and two of the other villagers come forward to help hold the black wooden box while he stirs the paper contents.

The tradition is one that has been going on for a long time, as evidenced by the deterioration of the black box, which some say was constructed from pieces of the original black box made by the first settlers when the village was founded.

A character called called Clyde Dunbar isn’t present due to a broken leg, so his wife has to draw for him. This causes some consternation and Mr Summers asks if there isn’t an older son to do it instead. There isn’t, so he concedes that Mrs Dunbar will have to draw for their family. This is another hint at a deep-rooted tradition being followed.

The ceremony gets under way, and the head of each family is called up one-by-one to draw a folded piece of paper, which they must hold it in their hand without looking at it until everyone has drawn. Some of the women remark how the year has flown by and it seems like a week since the last lottery. Another reminder that this happens every year.

There is talk of neighbouring villages stopping, or considering stopping, their annual lotteries. Old Man Warner, who is attending for the seventy-seventh time, is incredulous and thinks they are fools, and that the lotteries should continue, saying, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”, which suggests the villagers believe the annual event somehow brings good luck for the coming harvest, or prevents bad luck.

A sense of excitement and anticipation builds as the drawing of the papers continues.

As the heads of the families unfold their papers, it appears Bill Hutchinson is the winner, but his wife, Tessie, begins protesting that Bill wasn’t allowed to choose any ticket he wanted, and that it isn’t fair. At this point it becomes clear that the lottery may not be what it seems.

Mrs Hutchinson continues to protest and Bill is given what appears to be another draw. Five papers, one for each member of his family, are put back in the box, and the members of his family are called up one-by-one to draw again. This time Tessie draws a paper bearing a black spot.

People begin to gather stones from the pile the children made earlier in the corner of the square. A space is cleared and Tessie is in the centre of it. She continues to protest it isn’t fair, even though she appears to be the winner.

The crowd moves in carrying stones, and we discover that the lottery is not a happy tradition during which a family member wins and is awarded a prize, but a sinister ritual during which the person who drew the black spot is stoned by the other villagers.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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