Shirley Jackson’s Short Story “The Lottery” Literary Analysis
Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” delves into the theme of ritual. A short story is typically judged for its ability to portray its characters and themes in a pleasing and full manner. Shirley mentions a small village that has an annual tradition called “the lottery.” Shirley, who tells the narrative in the third person, employs irony, foreshadowing, and anticipation to highlight the dangers of blindly adhering to primitive customs.
Shirley uses symbolism to reflect the village’s barbaric customs. “The lottery” and its rules, for instance, symbolize any barbaric behavior, action, or idea that is transferred generation after the other and is blindly accepted and observed regardless of how irrational or inexplicable it is. The lottery has been observed in the village for as long as anyone would remember (Jackson 315). The villagers engage in the lottery simply because it has been there, not questioning the fact that they murder someone annually. The lottery also illustrates ironic symbolism as participating in it does not lead to gain but results in death (Jackson 317). The fact that it is observed annually depicts the society’s reluctance to abandon barbarous traditions. The old black box also illustrates the outdated tradition of the lottery, as well as the absurdity of the villagers observing it as depicted in “the black box, grew shabbier each year… it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained” (Jackson 312). “The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson few pebbles” symbolizes the indoctrination of “the lottery” ritual that is transferred from one generation to the other (Jackson 317). Lastly, Old Man Warner symbolizes traditionalists who stand to ensure that the traditions are observed. He considers quitting the lottery as a crazy and foolish act (Jackson 315).
Shirley explores the subject on the dangers of barbarous traditions by using foreshadowing techniques. Most of the seemingly harmless details in the short story foreshadow the unfortunate ending. “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones… the other boys…selecting the smoothest and roundest stones” seems like innocuous play until they are used at the end of the story to kill Tessie (Jackson 311). Mr. Summer’s comment when Tessie arrives at the square is strangely prophetic about Tessie’s fate “Thought we were going to have to get on without you” (Jackson 313). Furthermore, it is evident that tension is building up throughout the day as the villagers wait to participate in the lottery. The third paragraph describes the mood of the day, the men smile as opposed to laughing; the children are reluctant to respond when they are called upon while the women engage in gossip (Jackson 312). The mood presents an undercut of the horror, which defines the story. Furthermore, the children’s reaction suggests that they might be conscious of the ritual and may be terrified to participate in the stoning. This further illustrates the foreshadowing of the lottery tradition.
Jackson presents the subject of the ritual of “the lottery” through a series of suspense in the story. By relentlessly withholding the explanation behind the villagers’ actions, the author builds suspense in the story until Tessie receives the first stone (Jackson 317). The narrator provides lots of information about the lottery as regards the traditions that have survived or been abandoned but the precise nature and purpose of the ritual are not unraveled until the end of the story. The audience goes through the entire ceremony, “there was a great deal of fussing to be done before Mr. Summers declared the lottery open. There were the lists to make up… proper swearing-in of Mr. Summers … the official to speak to each person approaching” (Jackson 313). Jackson begins to disclose that something is not right when the lottery begins “a sudden hush fell on the crowd…” tension increases as Tessie complains about Bill’s selection (Jackson 314). She gives a hint when the narrator points out that the villagers still recalled using stones. However, it is not until the first stone is thrown does Shirley clearly depict the nature of the ritual. By concealing important information, until the end of the story, Shirley tactfully presents the subject of tradition to an unknowing audience.
Also, through the use of a third person point of view, Shirley successfully presents her subject on bizarre traditions in a detached and objective manner. As opposed to presenting the story from the characters points of view, the storyteller solely unfolds the ritual of the lottery. The narrator’s point of view seeks to undercut the shocking revelation at the end of the story. The only indication of the true purpose of the ritual is from the crowd’s nervous reactions, “…he blinked his eyes nervously and ducked his head…” (Jackson 314). From an objective point of view, Shirley succeeds in unraveling the barbaric ritual of the lottery.
Narrating the story from a third person point of view, Shirley uses symbolism, foreshadowing, and suspense to illustrate the danger of blindly observing barbaric traditions. The village lottery, a weird tradition results in a vicious murder annually, depicting the danger of observing traditions without questioning. The tragic fate of Tessie Hutchinson that is culminated by a barbarous ritual makes the audience to question the morality of the traditions in the society.
Jackson, Shirley. Patterns for college writing. Edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009, pp. 311-317. Print.