The morning of June 27th is a sunny, summer day with blooming flowers and green grass. In an unnamed village, the inhabitants gather in the town square at ten o’clock for an event called “the lottery.” In other towns there are so many people that the lottery must be conducted over two days, but in this village there are only three hundred people, so the lottery will be completed in time for the villagers to return home for noon dinner.
This seemingly idyllic beginning establishes a setting at odds with the violent resolution of the story. Early details, such as sun and flowers, all have positive connotations, and establish the theme of the juxtaposition of peace and violence. The lottery is mentioned in the first paragraph, but not explained until the last lines.
The children arrive in the village square first, enjoying their summer leisure time. Bobby Martin fills his pockets with stones, and other boys do the same. Bobby helps Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix build a giant pile of stones and protect it from “raids” by other children. The girls stand talking in groups. Then adults arrive and watch their children’s activities. The men speak of farming, the weather, and taxes. They smile, but do not laugh. The women arrive, wearing old dresses and sweaters, and gossip amongst themselves. Then the women call for their children, but the excited children have to be called repeatedly. Bobby Martin runs back to the pile of stones before his father reprimands him and he quietly takes his place with his family.
The children’s activities—gathering stones—have a false innocence about them. Because this resembles the regular play of children, the reader may not assume gathering stones is intended for anything violent. The word “raids,” however, introduces a telling element of violence and warfare into the children’s innocent games. Similarly, the reader is lulled into a false sense of security by the calm and innocuous activities and topics of conversation among the adult villagers. We see the villagers strictly divided along gendered lines, even as children.
Mr. Summers, the man who conducts the lottery, arrives. He also organizes the square dances, the teen club, and the Halloween program, because he has time to devote to volunteering. He runs the coal business in town, but his neighbors pity him because his wife is unkind and the couple has no children. Mr. Summers arrives bearing a black box. He is followed by the postmaster, Mr. Graves, who caries a stool.
Mr. Graves sets the stool in the center of the square and the black box is placed upon it. Mr. Summers asks for help as he stirs the slips of paper in the box. The people in the crowd hesitate, but after a moment Mr. Martin and his oldest son Baxter step forward to hold the box and stool. The original black box from the original lotteries has been lost, but this current box still predates the memory of any of the villagers. Mr. Summers wishes to make a new box, but the villagers don’t want to “upset tradition” by doing so. Rumor has it that this box contains pieces of the original black box from when the village was first settled. The box is faded and stained with age.
The details of the lottery’s proceedings seem mundane, but the crowd’s hesitation to get involved is a first hint that the lottery is not necessarily a positive experience for the villagers. It is also clear that the lottery is a tradition, and that the villagers believe very strongly in conforming to tradition—they are unwilling to change even something as small as the black box used in the proceedings.
Much of the original ritual of the lottery has been forgotten, and one change that was made was Mr. Summers’s choice to replace the original pieces of wood with slips of paper, which fit more easily in the black box now that the population of the village has grown to three hundred. The night before the lottery, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves always prepare the slips of paper, and then the box is kept overnight in the safe of the coal company. For the rest of the year, the box is stored in Mr. Graves’s barn, the post office, or the Martins’ grocery store.
Even though the villagers value tradition, many of the specific parts of their traditions have been lost with time. This suggests that the original purpose of the lottery has also been forgotten, and the lottery is now an empty ritual, one enacted simply because it always has been. When we later learn the significance of the slips of paper, it seems horribly arbitrary that they are simply made by a person the night before.
In preparation for the lottery, Mr. Summers creates lists of the heads of families, heads of households in each family, and members of each household in each family. Mr. Graves properly swears in Mr. Summers as the officiator of the lottery. Some villagers recall that there used to be a recital to accompany the swearing in, complete with a chant by the officiator. Others remembered that the officiator was required to stand in a certain way when he performed the chant, or that he was required to walk among the crowd. A ritual salute had also been used, but now Mr. Summers is only required to address each person as he comes forward to draw from the black box. Mr. Summers is dressed cleanly and seems proper and important as he chats with Mr. Graves and the Martins.
The lottery involves organizing the village by household, which reinforces the importance of family structures here. This structure relies heavily on gender roles for men and women, where men are the heads of households, and women are delegated to a secondary role and considered incapable of assuming responsibility or leadership roles. Even though the setting of this story is a single town, it is generic enough that it might be almost anywhere. In doing this, Jackson essentially makes the story a fable—the ideas explored here are universal.
Just as Mr. Summers stops chanting in order to start the lottery, Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson arrives in the square. She tells Mrs. Delacroix that she “clean forgot what day it was.” She says she realized it was the 27th and came running to the square. She dries her hands on her apron. Mrs. Delacroix reassures her that Mr. Summers and the others are still talking and she hasn’t missed anything.
Tessie Hutchinson’s late arrival establishes her character in a few sentences: she cares little about the lottery and the pomp and circumstance of the ritual. She is different from the other villagers, and thus a potential rebel against the structure of the village and the lottery.
Mrs. Hutchinson looks through the crowd for her husband and children. The crowd parts for her as she joins them at the front, and some point out her arrival to her husband. Mr. Summers cheerfully says that he’d thought they’d have to start without Tessie. Tessie jokes back that Mr. Summers wouldn’t have her leave her dirty dishes in the sink, would he? The crowd laughs.
Mr. Summers says that they had better get started and get this over with so that everyone can go back to work. He asks if anyone is missing and, consulting his list, points out that Clyde Dunbar is absent with a broken leg. He asks who will be drawing on his behalf. His wife steps forward, saying, “wife draws for her husband.” Mr. Summers asks—although he knows the answer, but he poses the question formally—whether or not she has a grown son to draw for her. Mrs. Dunbar says that her son Horace is only sixteen, so she will draw on behalf of her family this year.
Mrs. Dunbar is the only woman to draw in the lottery, and the discussion of her role in the ritual proceedings emphasizes the theme of family structure and gender roles. Women are considered so inferior that even a teenaged son would replace a mother as the “head of household.” The formality surrounding these proceedings shows Mrs. Dunbar’s involvement to be an anomaly for the village.
Mr. Summers asks if the Watson boy is drawing this year. Jack Watson raises his hand and nervously announces that he is drawing for his mother and himself. Other villagers call him a “good fellow” and state that they’re glad to see his mother has “got a man to do it.” Mr. Summers finishes up his questions by asking if Old Man Warner has made it. The old man declares “here” from the crowd.
A hush falls over the crowd as Mr. Summers states that he’ll read the names aloud and the heads of families should come forward and draw a slip of paper from the box. Everyone should hold his paper without opening it until all the slips have been drawn. The crowd is familiar with the ritual, and only half-listens to these directions. Mr. Summers first calls “Adams,” and Steve Adams approaches, draws his slip of paper, and returns to his family, standing a little apart and not looking down at the paper.
The description of the lottery’s formalities builds the reader’s anticipation, as the many seemingly mundane rituals all lead up to a mysterious, ominous outcome. The arc of the story depends on the question of just what will happen to the “winner” of the lottery.
As the reading of names continues, Mrs. Delacroix says to Mrs. Graves that is seems like no time passes between lotteries these days. It seems like they only had the last one a week ago, she continues, even though a year has passed. Mrs. Graves agrees that time flies. Mr. Delacroix is called forward, and Mrs. Delacroix holds her breath. “Dunbar” is called, and as Janey Dunbar walks steadily forward the women say, “go on, Janey,” and “there she goes.”
Snap shots of village life, like the conversation between Mrs. Delacroix and Mrs. Graves, develop the humanity of the characters and makes this seem just like any other small town where everyone knows each other. The small talk juxtaposed against murder is what makes the story so powerful. Janey is taking on a “man’s role,” so she is assumed to need encouragement and support.
Mrs. Graves watches Mr. Graves draw their family’s slip of paper. Throughout the crowd, men are holding slips of paper, nervously playing with them in their hands. “Hutchinson” is called, and Tessie tells her husband to “get up there,” drawing laughs from her neighbors.
The men’s nervousness foreshadows the lottery’s grim outcome. Tessie acts at odds with the pervasive mood, drawing laughs from the crowd. Tessie does not question the lottery at this point, and treats the proceedings lightheartedly—from a position of safety.
In the crowd, Mr. Adams turns to Old Man Warner and says that apparently the north village is considering giving up the lottery. Old Man Warner snorts and dismisses this as foolish. He says that next the young folks will want everyone to live in caves or nobody to work. He references the old saying, “lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” He reminds Mr. Adams that there has always been a lottery, and that it’s bad enough to see Mr. Summers leading the proceedings while joking with everybody. Mrs. Adams intercedes with the information that some places have already stopped the lotteries. Old Man Warner feels there’s “nothing but trouble in that.”
The conversation between Mr. Adams and Old Man Warner establishes why the lottery is continued in this village, while it has been ended in others: the power of tradition. As the oldest man in the village, Old Man Warner links the lottery to traditional civilization, equating its removal to a breakdown of society and a return to a primitive state. For the villagers, the lottery demonstrates the organization and power of society—that is, a group of people submitting to shared rules in exchange for protection and support. But we see that the lottery also shows the arbitrariness and corruption of many of these social rules.
Mrs. Dunbar says to her oldest son that she wishes everyone would hurry up, and Horace replies that they’re almost through the list of names. Mrs. Dunbar instructs him to run and tell his father once they’re done. When Old Man Warner is called to select his slip of paper, he says that this is his seventy-seventh lottery. When Jack Watson steps forward, he receives several comments from the crowd reminding him to not be nervous and to take his time.
Mrs. Dunbar’s impatience, Old Man Warner’s pride, and Jack Watson’s coming-of-age moment show how integrated the lottery is into this society. No one questions the practice, and they all arrange their lives around it. Jackson shows how difficult it is to give up a tradition when everyone else conforms to it.
Finally, the last man has drawn. Mr. Summers says, “all right, fellows,” and, after a moment of stillness, all the papers are opened. The crowd begins to ask who has it. Some begin to say that it’s Bill Hutchinson. Mrs. Dunbar tells her son to go tell his father who was chosen, and Horace leaves. Bill Hutchinson is quietly staring down at his piece of paper, but suddenly Tessie yells at Mr. Summers that he didn’t give her husband enough time to choose, and it wasn’t fair.
Mr. Summer’s casual language and camaraderie with the villagers contrast with what is at stake. Tessie’s reaction is the first explicit sign of something horrifying at the heart of the lottery. She is as outspoken in her anger as she was in her humor—although rather too late, and it’s assumed she wouldn’t argue if someone else had been chosen. Bill resignedly accepts the power of the tradition.
Mrs. Delacroix tells Tessie to “be a good sport,” and Mrs. Graves reminds her “all of us took the same chance.” Bill Hutchinson tells his wife to “shut up.” Mr. Summers says they’ve got to hurry to get done in time, and he asks Bill if he has any other households in the Hutchinsons’ family. Tessie yells that there’s her daughter Eva and Eva’s husband Don, and says that they should be made to take their chance, too. Mr. Summers reminds her that, as she knows, daughters draw with their husband’s family. “It wasn’t fair,” Tessie says again.
This passage shows the self-serving survival instinct of humans very clearly. Each person who speaks up is protecting his or her own skin, a survival instinct that Jackson shows to be natural to all the villagers, and by extension all humans. Tessie is willing to throw her daughter and son-in-law into harm’s way to have a better chance of saving herself. The other women are relieved to have not been chosen—no one speaks up against the lottery until they themselves are in danger.
Bill Hutchinson regretfully agrees with Mr. Summers, and says that his only other family is “the kids.” Mr. Summers formally asks how many kids there are, and Bill responds that there are three: Bill Jr., Nancy, and little Davy. Mr. Graves takes the slips of paper back and puts five, including the marked slip of paper, in the black box. The others he drops on the ground, where a breeze catches them. Mrs. Hutchinson says that she thinks the ritual should be started over—it wasn’t fair, as Bill didn’t have enough time to choose his slip.
Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves’s calm continuation of the lottery’s ritual shows that they are numb to the cruelty of the proceedings. Tessie’s protests imply that she doesn’t see the choice of the marked slip of paper as fate or some kind of divine decree, but rather as a human failing. Perhaps she sees, too late, that the lottery is only an arbitrary ritual that continues simply because a group of people have unthinkingly decided to maintain it.
Mr. Summers asks if Bill Hutchinson is ready, and, with a glance at his family, Bill nods. Mr. Summers reminds the Hutchinsons that they should keep their slips folded until each person has one. He instructs Mr. Graves to help little Davy. Mr. Graves takes the boy’s hand and walks with him up to the black box. Davy laughs as he reaches into the box. Mr. Summers tells him to take just one paper, and then asks Mr. Graves to hold it for him.
Tessie’s protests have shown the reader that the outcome of the lottery will not be good. Little Davy’s inclusion reinforces the cruelty of the proceedings and the coldness of its participants. Little Davy is put at risk even when he is unable to understand the rituals or to physically follow the instructions.
Nancy Hutchinson is called forward next, and her school friends watch anxiously. Bill Jr. is called, and he slips clumsily, nearly knocking over the box. Tessie gazes around angrily before snatching a slip of paper from the box. Bill selects the final slip. The crowd is silent, except for a girl who is overheard whispering that she hopes it’s not Nancy. Then Old Man Warner says that the lottery isn’t the way it used to be, and that people have changed.
Even a dystopian society like this one doesn’t exclude other aspects of human nature like youth, popularity, friendship, and selfishness. Nancy’s behavior resembles that of many popular teen girls—again emphasizing the universal nature of Jackson’s story. We get the sense that Old Man Warner is perpetually displeased with any kind of change to tradition—even though the omniscient narrator tells us that the “tradition” Warner is used to is very different from the original lottery.
Mr. Summers instructs the Hutchinsons to open the papers. Mr. Graves opens little Davy’s and holds it up, and the crowd sighs when it is clearly blank. Nancy and Bill Jr. open theirs together and both laugh happily, as they hold up the blank slips above their heads. Mr. Summers looks at Bill, who unfolds his paper to show that it is blank. “Tessie,” Mr. Summers says. Bill walks over to his wife and forces the slip of paper from her hand. It is the marked slip of paper with the pencil dot Mr. Summers made the night before.
The inhumanity of the villagers, which has been developed by repeated exposure to the lottery and the power of adhering to tradition, still has some arbitrary limits—they are at least relieved that a young child isn’t the one chosen. They show no remorse for Tessie, however, no matter how well-liked she might be. Even Tessie’s own children are happy to have been spared, and relieved despite their mother’s fate. Jackson builds the sense of looming horror as the story approaches its close.
Mr. Summers tells the crowd, “let’s finish quickly.” The villagers have forgotten several aspects of the lottery’s original ritual, but they remember to use stones for performing the final act. There are stones in the boys’ piles and some others on the ground. Mrs. Delacroix selects a large stone she can barely lift. “Hurry up,” she says to Mrs. Dunbar beside her. Mrs. Dunbar gasps for breath and says that she can’t run. Go ahead, she urges, “I’ll catch up.”
Mrs. Dunbar already sent her son away, perhaps to spare him having to participate in murder this year, and now she herself seems to try and avoid taking part in the lottery as well. The line about the stones makes an important point—most of the external trappings of the lottery have been lost or forgotten, but the terrible act at its heart remains. There is no real religious or practical justification for the lottery anymore—it’s just a primitive murder for the sake of tradition. The use of stones also connects the ritual to Biblical punishments of “stoning” people for various sins, which then brings up the idea of the lottery’s victim as a sacrifice. The idea behind most primitive human sacrifices was that something (or someone) must die in order for the crops to grow that year. This village has been established as a farming community, so it seems likely that this was the origin of the lottery. The horrifying part of the story is that the murderous tradition continues even in a seemingly modern, “normal” society.
The children pick up stones, and Davy Hutchinson is handed a few pebbles. Tessie Hutchinson holds out her arms desperately, saying, “it isn’t fair,” as the crowd advances toward her. A flying stone hits her on the side of her head. Old Man Warner urges everyone forward, and Steve Adams and Mrs. Graves are at the front of the crowd. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Tessie screams, and then the villagers overwhelm her.
By having children (even Tessie’s own son) involved in stoning Tessie, Jackson aims to show that cruelty and violence are primitive and inherent aspects of human nature—not something taught by society. Tessie’s attempts to protest until the end show the futility of a single voice standing up against the power of tradition and a majority afraid of nonconformists. Jackson ends her story with the revelation of what actually happens as a result of the lottery, and so closes on a note of both surprise and horror. The seemingly innocuous, ordinary villagers suddenly turn violent and bestial, forming a mob that kills one of their own with the most primitive weapons possible—and then seemingly going home to supper.