As were many of Shirley Jackson’s stories, “The Lottery” was first published in the New Yorker and, subsequently, as the title story of The Lottery: or, The Adventures of James Harris in 1949. It may well be the world’s most frequently anthologized short story. A modern horror story, it derives its effect from a reversal of the readers’ expectations, already established by the ordinary setting of a warm June day in a rural community. Readers, lulled into this false summer complacency, begin to feel horror, their moods changing with the narrator’s careful use of evidence and suspense, until the full realization of the appalling ritual murder bursts almost unbearably on them.
The story opens innocently enough, as the townspeople gather for an unidentified annual event connected to the harvest. The use of names initially seems to bolster the friendliness of the gathering; we feel we know these people as, one by one, their names are called in alphabetical order. In retrospect, however, the names of the male lottery organizers—Summer and Graves—provide us with clues to the transition from life to death. Tessie, the soon-to-be-victim housewife, may allude to another bucolic Tess (in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles), whose promising beginnings transformed into gore and death at the hands of men.
The scholar and critic Linda Wagner-Martin observes that only recently have readers noticed the import of the sacrificial victim’s gender: In the traditional patriarchal system that values men and children, mothers are devalued once they have fulfilled their childbearing roles. Tessie, late to the gathering because her arms were plunged to the elbow in dishwater, seems inconsequential, even irritating, at first. Only as everyone in the town turns against her— children, men, other women invested in the system that sustains them—does the reader become aware that this is a ritual stoning of a scapegoat who can depend on no one: not her daughter, not her husband, not even her little boy, Davy, who picks up an extraordinarily large rock to throw at her.
No reader can finish this story without contemplating the violence and inhumanity that Jackson intended it to portray. In the irony of its depiction lies the horror of this classic tale and, one hopes, a careful reevaluation of social codes and meaningless rituals.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery: or, The Adventures of James Harris. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1949.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. “The Lottery.” In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, 783–784. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.