The setting is a small, nondescript town with a population of approximately three hundred people. On a clear morning, June 27th, the townspeople, starting with the children, begin to assemble for the lottery to begin at ten in the morning. It will conclude in time for lunch. While the girls chat to one side, the boys, including Bobby Martin, Harry Jones, and Dickie Delacroix, begin to pocket stones. Shortly thereafter, the men and women begin to gather, chatting amongst themselves before standing together as families.
The lottery is conducted by Mr. Summers, who has no children and whose wife is unpleasant. He is assisted by Mr. Graves, who follows him to bring the stool upon which Mr. Summers places a very worn black box. The black box used for the lottery is even older than the oldest town citizen, Old Man Warner. Mr. Summers stirs the slips of paper inside the black box. Originally, chips of wood were used, but as the town’s population increased, Mr. Summers was forced to switch to paper in order to fit all of the slips inside the box.
Before commencing the lottery, several lists had to be made: heads of households, heads of families, and members of each family. Mr. Summers efficiently tends to all of the details and prepares to start the lottery. Mrs. Tess Hutchinson is nearly late, but she arrives just in time to join her family in the crowd. She stands next to her husband, Bill, and their children.
Mr. Summers makes sure that everyone who needs to be at the lottery is present and accounts for those who are unable to attend. Then, the lottery begins.
Mr. Summers begins to call the names of each family alphabetically, and each head of the household, usually the husband and father, comes forward to take a slip of paper from the black box. As this happens, Mr. Adams mentions to Old Man Warner that a nearby village is considering giving up the lottery. Old Man Warner expresses derision for this suggestion, calling those people a “pack of young fools” (216).
Once all of the heads of households receive slips, they simultaneously check them. Bill Hutchinson has selected the special slip, and his family is singled out. Tess Hutchinson expresses her discontent and accuses Mrs. Summers of not giving her husband enough time to select his slip. Nonetheless, Mr. Summers rearranges the box so that it holds only five slips for the Hutchinson family. The family comes forth, and each of them, Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson and their three children, select one of the five slips in the box.
One by one, the children, then Mr. Hutchinson, reveal that their slips of paper are blank. The town realizes that Tess holds the remaining piece of paper with the black dot. The villagers start to collect stones, Mrs. Delacroix selecting one that is so large she can hardly carry it. As Tess Hutchinson protests, everyone, even her own children and husband, descend upon her and stone her to death.
Widely acclaimed as Jackson's masterpiece, "The Lottery" combines elements of horror, irony, domestic tranquility, and convention, all of which are often found separately in other short stories in this collection.
The suburban setting of "The Lottery" is important. It was modeled after the Vermont community in which Jackson herself spent much of her adult life. The town in which the lottery takes place is described as an ordinary and pleasant community. The children eagerly anticipate summer and play with one another. "[T]hey tended to gather together for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands" (211). The adults are congenial and amiable. "[The women] greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip as they went to join their husbands" (211). People are aware of others' activities or illnesses, and they generally provide support for others. For example, a young man drawing for the first time elicits the following: "Don't be nervous, Jack ... Take your time, son" (216). The above details establish the setting of "The Lottery" as a pleasant, conventional town, the inhabitants of which are generally friendly and kind.
However, the setting is deeply ironic, for it serves to highlight the hypocrisy, brutality, and perhaps even inherent evil of human nature, or at least this town and nearby towns, even after centuries of supposed civilization. Initially, the reader has no idea what the lottery truly entails, which is a sanitized ritual in brutality. The lottery results in the "winner" being stoned to death by the townspeople. They otherwise appear to be normal, not murderous, but this is just what they do every so often. In contrast to the true nature of the lottery and Mrs. Hutchinson's murder, the atmosphere of the village is seemingly idyllic. As a result, the inhumanity of the townspeople is brought out in sharp relief against the setting of "The Lottery." The setting is thus ironic because the otherwise normal town is the location of senseless murder.
Even the title of the short story is a classic example of irony. Modern readers in particular would ordinarily associate a lottery with a winner who gains a positive experience or a reward. In this case, however, Jackson's lottery results not in a winner but in a definite loser who is stoned to death by the village. Perhaps this extremely subversive irony was a factor that led to many readers' outrage over the story when it was first published. Duped by the nature of the title, readers perhaps expected a story about a winner, but were shocked by Jackson's portrayal of inhumanity and violence.
The character of Tess Hutchinson is also of significance. She displays hypocrisy and human weakness. Though she puts up a brave front and pretends to be unconcerned with the lottery (arriving late, forgetting the date), Mrs. Hutchinson is the first to protest the lottery when her family is endangered. She complains, ironically, "It wasn't fair!" (216). Up until this point, however, Tess has been complicit in allowing the lottery to proceed, though she knows of the gruesome outcome. She does not question the lottery's fairness when she first arrives at the event. She does not have a problem with it until she and her family are put in the spotlight. Then, she flips her original position and begins to decry the lottery process as unfair, simply because she and her family are at risk. Her statement about the fairness of the lottery is ironic because until her family is selected, Tess does not seem to believe the lottery is unfair. However, the reader comes to realize that the lottery has been unfair all along.
To the reader, the entire process of the lottery is inherently unfair, unjust, unthinkable. Its ritual, formally grounded in longtime tradition, not just in the town but elsewhere, does not mask the mindless evil of the act. The individual to be stoned to death is selected at random. There exists no rational cause or justification for singling out one person in the village to murder each year, though we do not know why the people do it or if they have any justifications for doing it. When Tess's death is imminent she recognizes most of all the reader's perspective as a matter of basic human nature to be concerned with random violence: "It isn't fair, it isn't right" (Jackson 219). By then, her fate has already been sealed.
The problem here is that in the town, the random violence is not deemed unfair. If someone must be stoned, perhaps the random selection is the most fair method of doing something which could never be fair to the victim. Tradition and superstition (for it would be folly to try to stop engaging in the tradition) seem to make sense even if people cannot articulate why.
Thus, Jackson not only demonstrates the power of conformity, given that none of the townspeople protest or question the ritual, but also the human capacity for mindless brutality and evil. "The Lottery" takes the theme of conformity, as found in "Flower Garden," to its violent extreme. No one in the town is willing to voice the clear and rational opinion that the lottery is an inhumane exercise in pointless brutality. Old Man Warner dismisses the notion of discarding the lottery as preposterous. "'There's always been a lottery,' he added petulantly" (215). Even the young children, who are ordinarily exempt from Jackson's critical eye of suburbia and society at large, cheerfully attend the lottery and take part in the stoning of Tess Hutchinson. "The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles" (218). To the townspeople, the thought of dispensing with the tradition of the lottery is inconceivable, because they are too steeped in conformity to consider breaking tradition.
This short story also highlights the necessity of rejecting outdated traditions when they no longer make sense (if they ever did). In "After You, My Dear Alphonse" and "Flower Garden," Jackson highlights the outdated racism of Mrs. Wilson and of the Vermont village, respectively, and demonstrates how racism results in hurtful social interactions that seem to have no need for being so awkward or discriminatory. In "The Lottery," the villagers’ inability to reject the outdated tradition of the lottery results in ritual murder of a most primitive, stone-age kind. The entire story serves as an allegory for Jackson's larger message that individuals must remain vigilant in their actions and beliefs, in order to ensure that they are not simply adhering to outdated and harmful conventions. In this short story, the townspeople's adherence to the outdated lottery causes the evil of murder.
Other physical elements in "The Lottery" suggest that this tradition is outdated and should be discarded. For example, the black box used by the villagers for the slips of paper is falling apart and needs to be replaced. However, the villagers refuse to replace it—another symbol of their harmful stagnancy. Jackson also portrays the village as having outgrown the tradition through a metaphor regarding the slips of paper. Wood chips were formerly used, but as the town expanded, only large quantities of paper would fit inside the black box. The town has grown out of the tradition, but instead of discarding it, they stubbornly uphold the yearly lottery.
The names of the two men who run the lottery, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves (particularly the latter), foreshadow later events. The lottery occurs during the summer every year, on June 27th. However, any sunny or bright thoughts associated with the season are dispelled by the presence of Mr. Graves. In the story, Mr. Summers is more jovial and talkative than Mr. Graves; he thus maintains a more dominant presence. However, Mr. Graves remains in the periphery of the reader's mind after his first mention. Though he does not have as much dialogue as Mr. Summers, he is everpresent and inescapable, like the death that awaits the loser.
Some readings of "The Lottery" emphasize the significance of ritualized murder. In a society which should be advanced enough to reject the concept of a sacrifice to pagan gods in hopes of a favorable harvest, this Vermont village chooses to engage in this practice. "Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon'" (215). Old Man Warner scoffs at the idea of discarding the lottery, saying that doing so would be a return to uncivilized times: "Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves" (215). This is another ironic statement, for the lottery tradition is clearly outdated and makes no sense; advances in science and technology—even pure rationality, it seems—can confirm that performing the lottery will not affect the harvest in any way. Again, Jackson emphasizes the necessity of discarding the tradition of the lottery, being incongruous with the modern age. This allusion to pagan sacrifices also suggests that the villagers view the lottery as normal, even necessary, as it is ritualized. To the villagers, the yearly stoning is a town institution, a sanitized sacrifice; they cannot see the lottery for what it truly is: senseless murder.
Probably what made readers most upset, beyond the banal brutality itself, was the realization that humans easily inure themselves to murderous rituals and that they themselves could see something of themselves in the awful irrationality of superstition. The rest of the short stories emphasize, time and again, how so-called civilized people are murderous, irrational, petty, and generally bad toward one another on a frequent basis. Jackson has told this story in 25 different ways; this is just the most extreme, yet horrifyingly realistic, version of the story of the hellish side of human nature. Does not society today have its murderous traditions, so traditional that we do not even see their irrationality and evil? Do we not have our scapegoats and sacrifices all the same?