Oct 31, 2013

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson: A Discussion

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I love the masterpiece of carefully orchestrated terror that is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, but I’ve never really had the chance to write about it. I wanted to reread it this Halloween, but I thought I’d do something a little more interesting than just write a few paragraphs myself. With that in mind, I invited some of my favourite bloggers to take part in a roundtable discussion of the story. Here are their thoughts:

Jill at Rhapsody in Books: “I like to think of this story now as “Hunger Games Without The Costumes”. But really, I find it much more frightening than The Hunger Games. The latter seems just like another good YA dystopian adventure. But “The Lottery” feels more realistic to me. I don’t think mob mentality, peer pressure, and the way groupthink encourages conformity and allows individuals to surrender their morality is only a problem during times of war (the story having been published in 1948) or other “exceptional” circumstances. Maybe the weapons of choice are no longer stones, but whether they be verbal stones slung in schools or on Facebook at kids who are different, or the employing of legal weapons such as profiling, insulting, hindering the ability to vote, and even shooting of people who are society’s current scapegoats, the phenomenon persists. And it is very scary! Give me more unrealistic dystopias any day, such as the one that posits that chocolate is made illegal. Well, at least I like to think it's more unrealistic....”

Jenny at Reading the End: “‘The Lottery’ is the first story I can remember being asked to read like an English major. When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher brought us “The Lottery” for inspection, and we inspected every nook and cranny of it for meaning. It was a veritable clown car of foreshadowing, imagery, irony, and all the other tricks that a writer employs to make her stories effective. Observe the implications associated with rituals of the lottery that are now lost. Observe that rocks are mentioned long before you know to shudder at them.

(Q: Guess who in my class picked up on the ironic significance of Mrs. Delacroix’s name?)

(A: Not me, and the shame of that failure will haunt me forever.)

Until Ana asked me to write about it, I hadn’t reread the story. The unit went on and on (I loved it), until I had the story and its devices nearly memorized, and did not need to return to it to delight in it. Having broken the story down so thoroughly into its component parts, I felt that I had mastered it. I never bothered to reassemble it and stand it back on its feet and watch it run. And what a colossal mistake, because it runs like a dream, or rather like a nightmare, hedging the impossible with all the trappings of possibility.

This is my circuitous way of saying that I forgot how frightening “The Lottery” really is. If you haven’t read it, do. Feel free (but don’t feel obligated) to notice the intricate craftsmanship that goes into making it the most chilling story I have ever yet to read.”

Clare at The Literary Omnivore: “Like “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” “The Lottery” is usually used in American schools for its destabilizing twist ending. “Did you figure out?” teachers sometimes ask, as if predicting the ending is the end-all and be-all of analysis. This attitude has made “The Lottery” practically immortal, sixty-five years after its publication, but it also flattens the piece by focusing solely on the ending. Stepping back and looking at “The Lottery” as a whole yields, I think, deeper pleasures than my own teenage stupefaction that I had read something truly violent in class.

Displacing something to examine it more fully is a time-honored tradition in speculative fiction, and that’s exactly what Shirley Jackson does here, placing an ancient rite of sacrifice for a good harvest in an otherwise idyllic small town in 1940s America. The ritual, now stripped of its chant, salute, and original accoutrements, barely has any meaning for the community beyond being something that they’ve just always done. “There’s always been a lottery,” Old Man Warner, the loudest voice for mindless adherence to tradition, darkly mutters, as if that’s cause enough to kill someone—sometimes, the story implies, children—once every year.

But the rest of the community, whether they believe it’s necessary for a good harvest or not, goes along with it. The lottery is treated as a pleasant, if necessary, piece of protocol for the town. The story opens with children playing as they gather stones for the victim. Mr. Summers, who runs the lottery, also oversees fun programs like “square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program.” Even Tessie Hutchinson, who is selected to be the sacrifice, only begins speaking out against the lottery when her family is selected and she might be in danger. Otherwise, she’s quite happy to go along with the idea that this tradition benefits the community by bringing it closer together, because it doesn’t directly affect her. When Davy Hutchinson, her youngest son, is handed a few pebbles to help kill his mother with, that’s a direct result of Davy having grown up in a community and a family where this is normal. Protesting at the last moment to save your skin isn’t going to change a community. And that’s the true horror of “The Lottery,” not its violent climax—the crushing weight of apathy towards our fellow man suddenly turning on you. Now that’s terrifying.”

Jeanne at Necromancy Never Pays: “I don’t remember how old I was when I first came across this story; I can’t have been more than ten, and I remember thinking that it must have taken place somewhere very far away with strange customs. Then I remember re-reading it when a middle school teacher assigned it, and I recall what seemed to me her strange sense of glee about quizzing us on the ending. After that, it was a story trotted out as a mob mentality parable, sometimes connected to a historical event, like the Salem witch hunts or Hitler Youth.

I have never liked the story in any of its variations; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that people would think they can control the future, or that any kind of powerful being a person would want to come into contact with would be swayed by a blood sacrifice. I suppose the closest I have come to liking any variation of the harvest sacrifice story is the Supernatural episode entitled “Scarecrow,” because their sacrifice does not always come from inside the town.”

Heather at Capricious Reader: “One of the only short stories I remember reading in high school is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. There were only two that made an impression on me, and “The Lottery” was certainly one of the two.

“The Lottery” was, for lock of a better word, the first work of literature I read that truly shocked me. In my memory, the story started as something deceivingly simple that left me completely shell-shocked and gutted by the end. It is really the first time I can remember having a visceral reacting to something I had read. Prior to “The Lottery”, I had enjoyed the likes of Sweet Valley High and Christopher Pike. I never realized it until Ana contacted me for my thoughts on the pieces but, reading “The Lottery” marked a very obvious shift in what I read. “The Lottery” taught me that reading could make me FEEL something, something more than a crush on a football player, or the innocent terror of a babysitter being stalked. It taught me real fear.

Yet now, some 20 years later, I’m having trouble remembering the actual story. I remember the unease, that is hard to shake, and the confusion of that first understanding, the understanding of what this town is actually doing.

In rereading it for my pieces for Ana, I was immediately struck by the first paragraph. The town is preparing for the lottery and it feels so innocent. The paragraph ends in a brief discussion on getting home for the midday meal. Going into the second paragraph, we’re met with children. Again, the contrast in innocence and thoughts of innocent things like going to school, and teachers, and studies. No hint of what is to come. Do the children even know? Sure they do. They are gathering stones. And there, that first hint, that first chill. Something isn’t right here. Or is it? Children gather rocks all the time! The men come, with their talk of fields, and planting, jokes, and smiles. The women come, with their faded dresses, and their gossip. No wonder I started the story feeling that it was simple and innocent.

It all seems so normal, doesn’t it?

Then the man with the black box appears. He’s a little late and apologetic. The crowd is keeping their distance.

Something isn’t right.

The box is old. So very old. It was made from a piece of the box before it, and it from the box before it. The box is old, worn, and splintered.

This has been going on a long time.

And Jackson continues, wrapping her story around you, pulling the threads tighter and tighter. The families. Their heads of household, their members, their numbers, all tallied. The pieces of paper in the box swished around. A swearing in. Then the drawing. The surprising support amongst members of the town. The talk of another town giving up the lottery, of how foolish they all think that is.

Then a name is chosen.

And the horror sets in. A family is chosen. Someone panics. Again, names are put in the box. Again a name is chosen. Stone are picked up. Stones are given to everyone, even sons.

And someone dies.

This is a master of the short story at work. Thank you Ana, for reminding me, of this story, and of Shirley Jackson.”

Ana at The Book Smugglers: “I’ve been wanting to read “The Lottery” since I read my first Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House) for Halloween last year so thank you Ana for giving me the opportunity to finally get to it. I had zero idea going in what the story was about and was dully horrified by the end. Two things strike me the most about it:

1) The juxtaposition of the light, almost mundane description of the villagers getting together to do the lottery and the reason why they are doing so. At first it sounds like any other benign reason could be behind their get-together, like a harvest festival, or a market day: people talk to each other about random routine, they joke and play. But the small touches of horror are there foreshadowing of what is really happening: the children who collect the stones; the box that is new (why is it new, was the old one destroyed by a recalcitrant “winner”?); the uneasy way that some of the villagers laugh…

2) There is not a single moment in the story where an explanation as to why this must happen every year is offered. That fact that the villagers don’t even seem to know why the lottery needs to be held nor most of them care to ask only reinforces the idea of conformity and normalisation of a horrific ritual because it is tradition. It is a silent, quiet horror, this one because of that.

I recently watched the movie The Purge which is set in a dystopian US where life is better than never because once every year, for a 12 hour period, all crime – including murder – is legal. The purge is portrayed as a good thing for the people to express their negative and repressed feelings all at once, in order for their society to thrive. On top of a being an excellent thriller it is also one that examines mob mentality, conformity to a new “tradition” and the manner that said tradition is inevitably connected with economical, political and social power. It is a brilliant movie and one that I feel seems to expand on the ideas presented in “The Lottery”.

This Halloween: read “The Lottery”, watch The Purge.”

Meghan at Medieval Bookworm: “I first read “The Lottery” back in high school, when we were learning about the art of creating a short story. It’s now part of the random corpus of my knowledge that a short story needs to be crafted to achieve one effect, and this is something that “The Lottery” does exceptionally well.

From the first paragraph, the reader starts wondering what this lottery is. What are they choosing? Why is it such a big deal? As the story goes on, we keep wondering and wondering, but what grows is that sense of dread and uncertainty. With every paragraph that goes by, we sense that something is happening, but we don’t know what it is, and every line seems designed and crafted to heighten that sense of wrongness. It’s a sunny day, but the events in the story are not sunny.

This isn’t a particularly gruesome read, but it is definitely a creepy one. What gets me is how much Shirley Jackson tries to contrast that growing uncertainty and dread with the casual attitude of the villagers and their efforts to joke and socialise just before the lottery itself takes place. It’s like the awkward conversation you have with your doctor before you receive potential important news about your health - you don’t know what’s going to happen, it scares you, but you try to remain as neutral as possible.

This is my favorite kind of read as autumn draws in, one that doesn’t scare you with outright gore or violence, but that creeps up on you and still manages to surprise.”

Memory at Stella Matutina / Memory Trips: “I first encountered “The Lottery” in my early days at university, long before I became a rabid devotee of short fiction. It made a strong enough impression on me that I remembered its resolution twelve years later, but I viewed it more as a social experiment than as a story to be enjoyed and contemplated.

It wasn’t until this latest reading—my first since uni—that I came to appreciate what Jackson does here. She pens my favourite brand of horror: that where a commonplace, even pleasant, situation slowly reveals itself to be something more ominous. Lotteries offer the promise of excitement and personal gain. They allow the winners to glory in their luck; perhaps even to boast of it.

Jackson turns that idea on its head. At first, her lottery seems like just another town gathering, complete with playful children and adults engaged in small talk. As the story progresses, though, it pits the townsfolk against each other in a quiet, restrained way that simmers with tension—and ultimately forces one family into a place where none of them will win.

It’s the kind of story that changes the way you hear a word, and it provides food for thought long after you’ve read the final sentence.”

Amy at My Friend Amy: “Discussing “The Lottery” on Halloween makes perfect sense to me since I really can’t think of a more horrifying story.

I first read “The Lottery” in college and while I wish I could say that I remember the exact experience of reading it...i.e. when I knew what was going on, etc. I can’t. I do remember the feeling of sitting in my stuffy English class discussing the story.

I think the use of the word lottery led me to believe it would be a somewhat normal story...along with the very normal way people acted.

The story has stayed with me for years but I decided to reread it before writing this. It’s amazing, all over again, how normal everything seems. I mean even the comparison of the lottery to square dances and the Halloween program are almost misleading. And also unsettling...oh yes this event where we kill one of our own is just another town activity!

And despite the fact that Jackson never really explains why this brutal event takes place each year, it still works because we know and sense it could be possible—maybe not practically, but we know people are capable of behaving in such a horrific way. Even some of the letters Jackson received in response to the story indicated people wanted to know where such things happened and if they could watch!! I think, too, when I reread it the lottery is completely unbiased and they’d happily slaughter a child if that’s what it took.

I think the story also does a really fantastic job of sparking the imagination despite the brevity of the actual story. There are so many questions which is probably why people have written other works (fanfiction!) attempting to satisfy those questions or make further sense of the story. Why do they do this? How do they continue to live with one another? etc.

And of course I’d be remiss if I didn't mention how much this story has influenced other stories I love. I’m sure the beginning of The Hunger Games brought “The Lottery” to a lot of people’s minds. I always think this is a sign of a truly great piece of work—it continues to inspire and influence more great work.”

Thank you so much for taking part! And Happy Halloween, everyone!


  1. WOW, this was so much fun! I have never read this story, but I DO have it on my shelves! Yet again, my eyes are bigger than my stomach and I don't ever have enough time to read the spooky stories (my favorite kind) during the spooky months. I just say to hell with it and keep reading them, right through Christmas! Ho ho ho!

  2. Oh, I love what Heather says about this story marking a difference in the way she understood what stories were capable of. There are some books that had that function for me in various ways, and I always remember them with such love and gratitude.

    Contra Jeanne, I LOVE a harvest sacrifice. Every variation of the harvest sacrifice story fascinates and entrances me. Cf. Fire and Hemlock, which I know is not exactly totally a harvest sacrifice story, but it has harvest sacrifice in its bones.

  3. This was such a fantastic way to revisit that creepy story. That was one of the first short stories I read that really stuck with me. It's so disturbingly calm!

  4. Great post. Shirley Jackson's writing is excellent and she's not as well known as I think she should be. She died young (48) and she refused to give interviews so that probably contributes to the problem. Still like MFK Fischer, I think she's one of America's great writers who wrote in a genre that's never fully given its due.

  5. Oh, this is so cool! I love hearing opinions like Jeanne's, since it's so contrary to mine.

  6. Wow, what a lovely way to review this short story, Ana. I like the varying differences in the reviews, what each reader liked - like being part of a book club.

    I read The Lottery many years ago, and it has remained in my mind as one of the seminal short stories ever written, never mind one of the best horror short stories. I agree with Ellie who said that horror is a genre that is underrated, as is Shirley Jackson. Even though her work is considered the best among horror readers, and high schools teach The Lottery, her name isn't as well-known as one of the best American horror writers, and it should be.

    I like the other comment about how lottery changes from being a blessing, a fortune of good things heaped on a person, to pure horror. Breathtaking, isn't it? The skill and imagination to do that.

  7. I'm fascinated by how different these viewpoints are--especially in light of how many of us remember being assigned to read this story in school, which sometimes kills the pleasure in it, at least for some (I hear this story a lot about poems, especially if the assignment has been to perform the kind of very close reading that Jenny describes).
    I used to wonder if I'd led a very sheltered life, that I don't find this kind of horror realistic. Now I think it's just the absent-minded professor stereotype...some people don't notice the way other people conduct their lives--nose in a book or something.

  8. My husband, who doesn't read fiction, mentioned the impression this story had on him in high school. He's since been wary of tradition for tradition's sake. Somehow I made it through school and never read it but picked it up when he talked of it.

    I shared it with my gifted seventh graders, and every year we had some incredible discussions. Those middle school years are the ones kids are starting to think outside themselves and to look for their identity in others. It was fascinating to watch them grapple with what was going on in the story and what it meant for them personally.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.