Reading and Discussion Questions on Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
Were you surprised by the ending of the story? If not, at what point did you know what was going to happen?
IRONY – Mr. Summers/summary beginning for such a dark story; The Lottery – lotteries evoke the sense of luck and positive winnings but this is the opposite, you don’t want to win.
RITUAL – men of the family pick, then from there the family chooses. Loser gets stoned.
2. How does Jackson foreshadow the ending? Conversely, how does Jackson lull us into thinking that this is just an ordinary story with an ordinary town?
Bobby Martin stuffed his pockets with stones, careful selection of stones by boys
Men stood away from stone pile
Tradition – villagers uneasy and quiet, not excited like a normal lottery
Mr. Graves – morbid
Mrs. Hutchinson’s late arrival
The drawing process – people drawing for each other, Watson’s boy drawing for his mom – INFERENCE – Watson lost last year???
Old Man Warner – always been a lottery, bad that Mr. Summers is joking – serious day
3. In what way does the setting affect the story? Does it make you more or less likely to anticipate the ending?
June 27th, clear and sunny, summer day, 10:00 AM, small village of 300 people. Less likely to anticipate ending – bright setting in nice village showing a dark, horrible ending.
4. In what ways are the characters differentiated from one another? Looking back at the story, can you see why Tessie Hutchinson is singled out as a "winner"?
Bill Hutchinson – short with his wife, holds up her slip. Honourable man or happy it’s his wife?
Tessie – Wasn’t fair, even suggests Don and Eva!! Mother wants daughters in running for death, selfish
Nancy – 12 years old
Davy – given a few pebbles to kill his mother with
Mr. Summers – Ironic name
Mr. Graves – characterization of the day
Mr. and Mrs Adams – other places have stopped it (new generation)
Old Man Warner – represents old ideals, loves tradition – ain’t the way it used to be (people hoping its not Nancy…) could mean it used to be an honour?
5. How is this story similar to movies you have watched or books you’ve read? Make a few connections (Eg. The Hunger Games). How does it compare to our seating plan? Feel free to be dramatic.
Hunger Games – lottery style, kids killing or being killed, families torn apart, forced to do it once a year
Read the story again now that you know the ending. See if you catch new meaning: 6. This is a different sort of story when you read it for the second time. What elements (such as Mrs. Hutchinson's attempt to have her daughter, Eva, draw with the family) take on a different meaning the second time through?
You realize she’s less sympathetic than you thought. Tense nature all the way through it becomes more clear such as the rock piles…
Smiles not laughs
No man wants to help set up the box
7. Are there other symbols? Why is the "black box" battered, for example?
Black dot – mark of death, spotted with fate
Black box – dark tradition, trapped, cage, cornered in
Mr. Graves – grave day, grave situation, he sends her to her grave (helps throw)
8. Describe the point of viewof the story. How does the point of view affect what we know about the situation? How does it preserve the story's suspense?
3rd person omniscient. Dialogues inserted but otherwise it’s an all-knowing narrative; all characters are just being observed. Makes reader feel as if they are there that day, observing what the rest of the village is observing. Only at the end when we realize what’s happening does the rest become understood. Suspense ending was built through the way it was told.
9. This story was published in 1948. Are there any cultural or historical events that Jackson might be commenting on here? Is this JUST a story about this particular time and place, or is she trying to say something important about human nature?
Just after WWII – received very negatively in America. Everyone trying to get rid of the horrors of war and genocide and then Jackson made this story.
She threw the dangers of blind obedience to tradition into the face of post-war society. What are the dangers of blind obedience???? Hitler’s army blindly obeying resulted in murder of millions.
“Let’s finish quickly” – Mr. Summers about killing Tessie after she is realized the loser.
In 1948, The New Yorker published the most controversial short story in its history: "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, a 31-year-old wife and mother living in Vermont. The simply told tale covers a ritual lottery in a sunny, rural town. But what starts out bathed in warmth and charm grows eerier and eerier, until the horrific purpose of the lottery is revealed in the story's final paragraphs. Soon after the piece was published, angry letters poured in to The New Yorker. Readers canceled their subscriptions. And while many claimed they didn't understand the story, the intense reaction indicated they understood it all too well.
"The Lottery" was published at a time when America was scrambling for conformity. Following World War II, the general public wanted to leave behind the horrors of war and genocide. They craved comfort, normalcy, and old-fashioned values. Jackson's story was a cutting commentary on the dangers of blind obedience to tradition, and she threw it, like a grenade, into a complacent post-war society.
LUCK OF THE DRAW
Shirley Jackson was not the kind of person you'd expect to be a literary firebrand. Shy and high-strung, she dropped out of the University of Rochester in 1935. Her second stab at school was more successful. At age 20, she enrolled at Syracuse University, where she met her future husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. Together, they published a short-lived literary magazine called The Spectre.
After graduating from Syracuse, the two got married and moved to New York City, where Jackson gave birth to the first of her four children. Soon after, in 1945, Hyman got a job teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. The family moved to North Bennington, a tiny, rural town that later became the setting for "The Lottery." While Stanley taught, Jackson wrote. She penned a few offbeat stories for The New Yorker, but mostly she produced mainstream pieces for women's periodicals such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal. After several years of living in Vermont, Jackson had another child and was carrying a third. From a distance, her life seemed tranquil and wholesome. But something darker was brewing inside.
On a sunny June day in 1948, while taking a long walk, that darkness emerged. Several months pregnant and pushing a baby carriage loaded with groceries, Jackson found the trip more difficult than she'd anticipated. The entire time, she couldn't stop thinking about the book her husband had shown her on ancient rites of human sacrifice.
As soon as Jackson got home, she wrote the 3,378 words of "The Lottery." It took her just two hours, and seemed to flow out of her nearly perfect. "Except for one or two minor corrections," she remembered later, "It needed no changes."
Her husband quickly recognized the story was genius, and Jackson sent it on to her editor at The New Yorker. Soon, her life would change.
THE RULES OF THE GAME The tale begins pleasantly in a small, unnamed town. The day is "clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day," and the people are gathering the square, children first. "Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones," we're told -the first vague note of menace in the story. Soon, the adults arrive, joking, gossiping, and "speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes." This is Everytown, USA, Jackson implies. But something is off. The villagers are piling up rocks.
Then the lottery begins. One by one, the head of each household draws a slip of paper from the box. Casual dialogue and deadpan description mask a building sense of danger. Only the occasional unexplained reference hints at the macabre. "Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn will be heavy soon,'" says Old Man Warner. It seems that whatever is taking place has been going on since time immemorial.
One of the townspeople, Bill Hutchinson, draws the unlucky slip of paper. Bill, his wife, and their three children must now draw from the box in turn. This time, Bill's wife, Tessie, gets the marked paper. "All right, folks," says Mr. Summers, the man in charge, "Let's finish quickly."
It's only in the final short paragraphs of "The Lottery" that the story turns to outright horror. "The children had stones already," Jackson writes. "And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles." As the stones hit Tessie, she screams "It isn't fair, it isn't right." The story ends with six infamous words: "And then they were upon her."
WINNING THE LOTTERY The editors at The New Yorker were taken aback when Jackson submitted "The Lottery," but they also appreciated its literary virtues. In the end, the decision to accept it was one vote shy of unanimous.
The public wasn't quite as accepting. People were outraged. The story's reception came as a surprise to Jackson. But mostly, she was appalled by the readers who wanted to know where they could find a lottery to watch themselves.
Good or bad, "The Lottery" had everyone talking. Shirley Jackson had made a name for herself in fiction. Her publisher, Farrar Strauss, hurried to capitalize on the buzz by publishing a collection of her work, The Lottery and Other Stories. To promote the book, Strauss circulated rumors that Jackson had used voodoo to break the leg of publishing rival Alfred J. Knopf, billing her as a practicing witch. In truth, Jackson was known to dabble in mysticism and the occult. She read tarot cards and collected books on witchcraft and magic.
Today, the rumors surrounding Jackson's life and the vitriol over her short story have been largely forgotten. What remains is "The Lottery" itself -the paradigm of a perfectly crafted narrative. While the tale begins on a sunny, summer day, it builds at a ferocious pace, from daydream to nightmare. The writing is tight and compelling, and the story is impossible to forget. As author Jonathon Lethem puts it, "It now resides in the popular imagination as an archetype."
Just as those initial readers were drawn to the piece in spite of their indignation, generations of readers have since been simultaneously horrified and touched by the tale. Authors including Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, Richard Matheson, and Neil Gaiman all credit Shirley Jackson as a source of inspiration, and for decades, "The Lottery" has been taught in middle schools and high schools across America. As author A.M. Holmes pointed out, the story is introduced to students when they are "just waking up to the oddity of things, and the terror that is in everyday life."
Until her death at the age of 48, Shirley Jackson kept writing short stories and novels, including The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which sparked multiple film versions. But it's "The Lottery" for which she's best known. The story has been adapted for radio, television, film, and even ballet. It's been written about and dissected in countless theses, dissertation, and books. And its warnings about the danger of conformity are still relevant. "The Lottery" revealed an uncomfortable truth about the human psyche and, in doing so, became a classic piece of American literature.