The Short Story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson


The Lottery is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published on June 26, 1948, in The New Yorker. The action in the story takes place in a non-existent settlement in the countryside that hosts an annual ceremony called the Lottery in which one member of the community is randomly selected. The shocking consequences of choosing The Lottery are only revealed at the end. The reaction of readers, which turned out to be negative, was not long in coming and surprised the author and the publishing house. As a result, many readers canceled their subscriptions to The New Yorker, and began to send hate mail to the publication (Sari and Tur 5). Many literary critics and writers have analyzed the work, both literary and sociological, and the story itself is one of the most famous in American literature.

Denial by Readers of Their Essence

The story received such a negative response because it is in human psychology to deny and criticize what they do not like about themselves. Shirley Jackson described the evil part of human nature, and readers took it critically because they did not want to accept this side of themselves. The main reason The Lottery resonates so strongly is that it is a story about anthropologically authentic characters. Unjustified human sacrifice has been present in almost every culture known today (Ruck et al. 55). The author even covers the very idea that sacrifice is essential for the well-being of others in her story.

Random selection can be understood here as a method of social discrimination. After all, gated communities tend to scapegoat according to arbitrary criteria (such as skin color or religious affiliation) to appease the majority’s conscience. In The Lottery, ritual stoning is a civilized, organized way for the rural community to deal with force majeure and shows the potential for violence that people have when they are relieved of responsibility for their actions as well. Finally, the law prescribes the casting of lots with stones.

Interpretation of the Short Story

The most famous Shirley Jackson’s socially critical story, The Lottery, opens with a description of one beautiful summer day. Ordinary villagers, people are divided into groups, children, husbands, and wives. Everyone talks about his own: about school holidays, about the upcoming land work, they gossip; it seems like a completely normal day. However, it gradually becomes more apparent to the reader that there is nothing to win in this lottery. At the very end, they realize that we are talking about the joint murder of an innocent person.

Despite the fact that the settlement seems quite friendly and ordinary, once a year, they all get together to break the existing idyll and choose a random person from among them to kill. It is similar to fairy tales, in which a villager is regularly chosen at random to be sacrificed to a monster or bloodthirsty deity so that they cannot destroy the entire city or, in the case of the Lottery, bring a crop (Jackson 4). In The Lottery, evil is in the people themselves, this bloodthirsty monster in every individual. It is deep inside people and only comes out once a year. This ritualized tradition does not allow society to fall apart – at least, that is what the locals think.

The lottery, the process of random selection for murder, is Jackson’s image of the arbitrariness with which scapegoats are chosen in actual society. Skin color, nationality, religion, and others are the selection criteria in society that determine who is to blame for the state of the world and who should be beaten, tortured, or destroyed. When children beat their classmates who wear glasses, persecute Jews in the Diaspora or harass homosexuals, the scapegoat mechanism works.

In fact, minorities are usually scapegoated because then the majority can feel safe. However, Shirley Jackson emphasizes that the choice is random and can happen to anyone. That is an instructive message of the author, which at the same time is exaggerated. Because if the victim is entirely random, then the lottery probably will not last long in actual society. If a person has to fear for their life, then such a lottery does not bring any benefit. It will last as long as there is a human thirst for murder, more vital than fear for one’s own life.

Traditional Evil

On the other hand, in her story, Shirley Jackson uses a pathological lottery system to symbolize the problems of tradition in modern society. There is a symbolism embedded in history in the form of a torn black box and the most terrible lottery. As a result, the author explains and advises the widespread problem of people who thoughtlessly follow distorted and misunderstood rituals rooted in traditions. The black box in the story can symbolize the age-old traditions and customs that people of all cultures have. Like all cultural traditions, the box is old and nostalgic. Jackson even goes so far as to describe it as “There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here” (Jackson 1). That coincides with the tradition of the lottery in general, as well as with most modern cultures and their traditional activities. Initially, the box supposedly was incredibly neat with sharp edges and polished paint.

There is a yearning for something new in the text, as the townspeople begin to discuss that some other townships are going to cancel or have already canceled the lottery, which “There’s always been a lottery” (Jackson 4). As with the box, traditions begin to fade and become distorted year after year; however, the outdated views of the people still prevail. For old Warner, for example, abolishing the lottery would be tantamount to a return to barbarism: “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves” (Jackson 4). On the other hand, it shows that the author obviously foresaw the reader’s outrage about the lottery. Hence, its cancellation seems possible in the future, which gives hope for future generations.


Shirley Jackson’s short work on social violence serves as a mirror for racists and nationalists. It shows that the animal in man has not been defeated by civilization but is dormant in all of us. If society allows it, if it is tolerated, then humanity becomes unjustifiably cruel. Such an occasion may be a pogrom, war, or civil war. Even though the story was written in the middle of the 20th century, the topics that the author touched on remain relevant to this day. In the modern world, along with growing tolerance, opponents’ aggression is also growing. Famous people are often blindly criticized, but more often than not, all prejudice is essentially accidental. The death in the story is an excellent example of how society can persecute innocent people for absurd reasons. It is also a crude and terrible example of how such accidental oppression can lead to the death of the oppressed.

Works Cited

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The New Yorker, 1948, Web.

Ruck, Carl, et al. Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras: The Drug Cult That Civilized Europe. City Lights, 2021.

Sari, Fani Alfionita, and Ajar Pradika Tur. “Reshaping the Society Face through the Culture of Horror Told in Shirley Jackson’s the Lottery.” Notion: Journal of Linguistics, Literature and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, 2019, p. 1., Web.

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