The Lottery

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The Lottery Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco to affluent, middle-class parents, and she grew up in a suburb. This setting would feature in her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, which was published when Jackson was 32 years old. Jackson’s family then moved to Rochester, New York, where she attended high school and later college at the University of Rochester, although she ultimately completed her degree in 1940 at Syracuse University. As a student, Jackson worked for the campus literary magazine, where she met her future husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. Hyman was also a lover of literature and would go on to become a successful critic. After Hyman and Jackson married, the pair moved to and spent the remainder of Jackson’s life in North Bennington, Vermont. Hyman worked as a professor at Bennington College, and Jackson spent her time writing. Both husband and wife enjoyed socializing and hosting events, and they had a wide circle of literary friends, which included Ralph Ellison. Jackson is best known for her short story “The Lottery” (1948), and for her ghost story “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959). Jackson died in her sleep due to heart failure in 1965. She was only 48 years old, although her health had declined in the years prior due to her diet and smoking habit, as well as her use of various drugs to combat lifelong neurosis.
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Historical Context of The Lottery
“The Lottery” appeared in print a few years after the end of World War II. By her admission, Jackson intended the story to point out the human capacity for violence. WWII exposed people all over the world to a new extent of human cruelty and violence, as accounts of the deeds of the Nazis and the horrors taking place in concentration camps slowly came to light. ”The Lottery” may have been put in motion by hearing of these atrocities, but there are universal and timeless aspects to her story as well. The primitive nature of the farming village is emphasized with the ancient weapon of stones, connecting Jackson’s story to more ancient events, primarily the practice of ritual sacrifice and stoning as a Biblical punishment. Other critics have placed Jackson’s work in conversation with Puritan traditions and characters, pointing out the family structure of the village and the Puritan values of hard work, tradition, and strict adherence to rules. The name Tessie Hutchinson may be an intentional allusion to Anne Hutchinson, a 17th century historical figure in Rhode Island who was declared heretical by the Puritan religious powers of the time and who was banished from her village. Like Anne, Tessie presents a figure who speaks out against the structure of the lottery and the village and is sacrificed by her fellow villagers.
Other Books Related to The Lottery
“The Lottery” holds a unique place in American literature due to its wide recognition. It is included in numerous anthologies and often assigned to students, despite its initial chilly reception. With its critique of human nature and society through its depiction of a community pushed to an extreme place of violence, “The Lottery” joins the ranks of other dystopian portraits of society such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” (1961), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). “The Lottery’s” feminist overtones, although subtle, are also noteworthy. Tessie Hutchinson presents a strong female protagonist who is outspoken and who speaks up against the society’s tradition of the lottery. The village in “The Lottery” is organized around family units that emphasize male dominance, and Tessie also presents a counterpoint to this structure. For its feminist dystopian ideas, “The Lottery” might be compared to the later novel by Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
Key Facts about The Lottery
  • Full Title: The Lottery
  • Where Written: North Bennington, Vermont
  • When Published: June 26, 1948
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction; Dystopian Literature
  • Setting: A rural small town, mid-twentieth century
  • Climax: Tessie Hutchinson is stoned to death by her neighbors, which reveals the purpose of the mysterious annual lottery.
  • Antagonist: The tradition of the lottery, the human inclination toward violence
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient
Extra Credit for The Lottery

Readers’ Responses. When the New Yorker published “The Lottery” in June of 1948, the magazine received hundreds of written responses to the piece, which were characterized, according to Jackson, with “bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse.” Many readers went so far as to cancel their subscriptions to the New Yorker due to its publication of the story. The reaction to the story was so dramatic that Jackson issued a statement about it in the San Francisco Chronicle, explaining her purpose in crafting the story as an attempt to “shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Banned in the Union of South Africa. The story was banned in South Africa, a fact which (as Jackson’s husband later reported) pleased Jackson. He wrote that she  "was always proud that the Union of South Africa banned ‘The Lottery,’ and she felt that they at least understood the story.”