Written in 1948, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson is a work of fiction that demonstrates conformity and rebellion while suggesting that the lottery is a ritualistic ceremony. Born in 1919, Jackson struggled her whole life with depression. Her marriage to Stanley Edgar Hyman produced four children, and Jackson maintained a tedious writing career during her marriage resulting in four novels.
The Lottery focuses around a village on the day of their annual Lottery. The purpose of The Lottery is to ensure enough rain to have a good corn crop the following June. Basically, the story evolves around the misguided belief that if the villagers sacrifice one of their own to what readers are led to believe is a Rain God, then they will have good crops the next year. They believe that if they do not do this, then they will regress to hard times. The town patriarch Old Man Warner sums this up:
"Pack of crazy fools, Listening to young folks, northing's good enough for them.
Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody
work anymore, live that way for awhile. Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in
June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed
and acorns. There's always been a lottery."
In The Lottery, the readers are deceptively led down a path to believe that June 27th is just as normal as any other day in this particular village. The tone is easy going, people seem to be going about business as usual. "The whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner." That is how insignificantly unimportant they make you feel about the event, that it is just a brief event that will be had, but should not disrupt the other necessary events of the day, especially the noon meal. Even the fact that the boys are collecting rocks is made to seem nothing more than child's play. "Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix-The villagers pronounced his name "Dellacroy" - eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the rids of the other boys." At this point in the story, it is never eluded to that these stones will eventually become the tortuous demise of Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson.
The tone of the story evolves into one of panic the further along we go. As the story moves along, there does become a sense of urgency, after each of the towns people have drawn their slips and it is determined that the Hutchinson family has the black slip, Tessie Hutchinson becomes hysterical. "You didn't give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn't fair." She is naturally upset that her family drew the black spot and panic is setting in. The earlier ease of the day is suddenly replaced with a sense of dread and urgency to finish up. And after determining that it was in fact Tessie who had the ill-fated black dot, "All right, folks," Mr. Summers said. "Let's finish quickly."- again an example of what once started as a care free early June day without any apparent hurry, has now been transformed by this ritualistic death ceremony, which everyone is eager to finish.
I would imagine that Jackson is writing this story to take place around the time that it was written, possibly earlier, the late 40's. The setting would suggest that it is probably depression times, due to the importance of the corn harvest, we're led to believe that it is set in a rural country village, and I can imagine Mrs. Hutchinson's dress such as one of a 1940's to early 50's common housewife. It says that after she realized what day it was, she dried her hands on her apron and came a-running, and her excuse for being late to the lottery was "Wouldn't have me leave m'dishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe?".
I think that Jacksons personal struggles and battle with depression played a big role in her writing style. Her works often led the reader towards ominous endings, or were laced with dark humor. This particular story is quite an interesting story to read because it really does keep the reader going right until the surprise ending. You really could read this whole story through and assume that The Lottery is a good thing almost until the end. The theme of The Lottery is to not believe everything you hear. These townspeople have been doing this ritualistic picking off of the villagers for years because they have this splintery, worn, old black box, that has been passed down over the years. They have parts of a ritual which they remember, and parts they don't, they've changed the whole thing so much it really isn't even the same anymore. But because of the stories they heard, and that have been passed down from generation to generation, they are afraid to not do the ritual. Rather, they just do the parts they remember. It's a lot like that children's game, "Pass it down" where a whisper is started at one end of a line, and by the time it gets to the end it is nothing like the original message.
Jackson, Shirley (1948) The Lottery. In Literature The Human Experience Reading and Writing, (pp 328-334) Bedford St. Martin