The Lottery

The Lottery

"The Lottery" is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in the June 26, 1948 issue of "The New Yorker". [cite news | author=Shirley Jackson | title=Fiction: "The Lottery" (abstract of story) | url= | work=The New Yorker | date=26 June 1948 | accessdate=2008-05-22]

The magazine and Jackson herself were surprised by the highly negative reader response. Many readers cancelled their subscriptions, and hate mail continued to arrive throughout the summer. In South Africa the story was banned. Since then, it has been accepted as a classic American short story, subject to many critical interpretations and media adaptations.

Plot summary

The story contrasts commonplace details of contemporary life with a barbaric ritual known as the "lottery." The setting is a small American town (population of approximately 300 and growing) where the locals display a strange and somber mood, from which unusual things can evidently be observed, like children gathering stones, as they assemble June 27 for their annual lottery. After the head of each family draws a small piece of paper, one slip with a black spot indicates the Hutchinson family has been chosen. When each member of that family draws again to see which family member "wins," Tessie Hutchinson is the final choice. She is then stoned to death by everyone present, including her own family, as well as both the young boys and young girls as a sacrifice to ensure a good harvest, according to the belief of the community.


Controversy surrounding the story brought an overwhelming amount of mail, phone calls and hundreds of canceled subscriptions. In "Private Demons", Jackson's biographer Judy Oppenheimer wrote, "Nothing in the magazine before or since would provoke such a huge outpouring of fury, horror, rage, disgust and intense fascination."

Amid the optimism of the post-WWII years, many readers of family magazines were shocked or confused to find the traditions and values of small town America twisted into violence. Some believed Jackson had based the short story on true events that had happened or were still happening in a real American town.

During the late 1940s, crowds gathered at town squares in rural communities across the country to participate in weekly cash-prize lotteries, calculated by city councils to drum up business for local merchants. Such a lottery was held on the lawn of the courthouse square in Lexington, Mississippi, in the post-war years, and "The New Yorker" subscribers who had witnessed similar small-town gatherings perhaps began reading with a notion that the story was a fictionalization of those cash drawings. [ [ Study Guide to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" ] ]

Many readers demanded an explanation of the situation described in the story, and a month after the initial publication, Shirley Jackson responded in the "San Francisco Chronicle" (July 22, 1948):

Jackson lived in Bennington, Vermont, and her comment reveals she had Bennington in mind when she wrote "The Lottery." In a 1960 lecture (printed in her 1968 collection, "Come Along with Me"), Jackson recalled the hate mail she received in 1948::One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in "The New Yorker"," she wrote sternly; "it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?" [Jackson, Shirley. "Come Along with Me", 1968.]

"The New Yorker" kept no records of the phone calls, but letters addressed to Jackson were forwarded to her. That summer she began to regularly take home 10 to 12 forwarded letters each day. In addition, she also received weekly packages from "The New Yorker" containing letters and questions addressed to the magazine or editor Harold Ross, plus carbons of the magazine's responses mailed to letter writers.

In "The Magic of Shirley Jackson" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, wrote about her reaction to the banning of the story in the Union of South Africa: "She felt that "they" at least understood." [Hyman, Stanley Edgar. "The Magic of Shirley Jackson", Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.]

In 1984, "The Lottery" was included among the 30 most-often banned books in American schools and libraries, as listed by "Playboy" (January, 1984). The books were arranged by frequency of censorship with the most-banned first, the least-banned last. At that time, "The Lottery" ranked #17, between "Black Like Me" and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". ["Playboy", January 1984.]

Critical interpretations

Mr. Summers, Mr. Graves and Mr. Martin are the village's most important men. With a successful coal business, Summers can be viewed as the leader of this closely knit community where men dominate the women. The women are apparently satisfied with their position in the social ladder. Tessie assents to the idea of the lottery until she is selected as the person to be killed, screaming, "It isn't fair. It isn't right." Tessie's sudden change of heart upon having her own name chosen serves to highlight the hypocrisy of a society in which violence is accepted until it becomes personal. Tessie had not complained at the previous lotteries, yet she complains when it is she who is going to be killed.

Except for Mr. and Mrs. Adams' words to Old Man Warner, there is no notion of ending the lottery. When the children gather the smoothest stones they can find, readers do not think it is that important; however, the smoothest stones will cause a slower and more painful death. Another thing that is quite disturbing is that the villagers want to get the lottery over with as quickly as possible so they can get home for dinner, which shows that the death of a person from the lottery is not seen as very important. When Mrs. Adams tells Warner that some of the other villages have stopped holding the annual lotteries, he replies, "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." He is a traditionalist who views the annual event as a way of life. His comment about those contemplating an end to the lottery: "Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while." Summers, whose opinion takes precedence, doesn’t feel the need to oppose the lottery, and the villagers are all inclined to continue the tradition.

Helen E. Nebeker's essay, "The Lottery": Symbolic Tour de Force" in "American Literature" (March, 1974) reveals that every major name in the story has a special significance::By the end of first two paragraphs, Jackson has carefully indicated the season, time of ancient excess and sacrifice, and the stones, most ancient of sacrificial weapons. She has also hinted at larger meanings through name symbology. "Martin," Bobby’s surname, derives from a Middle English word signifying ape or monkey. This, juxtaposed with "Harry Jones" (in all its commonness) and "Dickie Delacroix" (of-the-Cross) urges us to an awareness of the Hairy Ape within us all, veneered by a Christianity as perverted as "Delacroix," vulgarized to "Dellacroy" by the villagers. Horribly, at the end of the story, it will be Mrs. Delacroix, warm and friendly in her natural state, who will select a stone "so large she had to pick it up with both hands" and will encourage her friends to follow suit... "Mr. Adams," at once progenitor and martyr in the Judeo-Christian myth of man, stands with "Mrs. Graves"—the ultimate refuge or escape of all mankind—in the forefront of the crowd.

Fritz Oehlshlaeger, in "The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning of Context in "The Lottery" ("Essays in Literature", 1988), wrote::The name of Jackson's victim links her to Anne Hutchinson, whose Antinomian beliefs, found to be heretical by the Puritan hierarchy, resulted in her banishment from Massachusetts in 1638. While Tessie Hutchinson is no spiritual rebel, to be sure, Jackson's allusion to Anne Hutchinson reinforces her suggestions of a rebellion lurking within the women of her imaginary village. Since Tessie Hutchinson is the protagonist of "The Lottery", there is every indication that her name is indeed an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, the American religious dissenter. She was excommunicated despite an unfair trial, while Tessie questions the tradition and correctness of the lottery as well as her humble status as a wife. It might as well be this insubordination that leads to her selection by the lottery and stoning by the angry mob of villagers.

In "A Reading of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery'" ("New Orleans Review", Spring 1985) Peter Kosenko provides a Marxist interpretation of the story that brings all of Jackson's details together into a critique of capitalism.:Though it is arguable that the "primary themes are scapegoating, man's inherent evil, and the destructive nature of observing ancient, outdated rituals" this is a common misconception. The actual theme of the short story is that man creates philosophical existences that he is unable to fulfill. This is shown through Tessie Hutchinson. Throughout the story she is joking around about the lottery and carrying on like all the other townspeople, but as soon as her family name is chosen from the black box her perspective takes quite the turn. Suddenly this "isn't fair" when in all reality a lottery is by definition the most fair method of chance. When Hutchinson exclaims, "It isn't fair!" this is a prime example of dramatic irony. While it is obvious that Tessie believes it was not fair that she was chosen, Jackson is also trying to express that human nature is unfair. It is in human nature to kill and that is unfair.

Media adaptations

In addition to numerous reprints in magazines, anthologies and textbooks, "The Lottery" has been adapted for radio, live television, a 1953 ballet, a 1969 short film, a TV movie, an opera and a one-act play. NBC's radio adaptation was broadcast March 14, 1951 as an episode of the anthology series, "NBC Short Story". Ellen M. Violett wrote the first television adaptation, seen on Albert McCleery's "Cameo Theatre" (1950–1955). Currently, the Acting Company offers a one-act production, directed by Douglas Mercer and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, which can be staged in school classrooms. [ [ The Acting Company ] ]

Larry Yust's short film, "The Lottery" (1969), produced as part of Encyclopædia Britannica's "Short Story Showcase" series, was ranked by the Academic Film Archive "as one of the two bestselling educational films ever". It has an accompanying ten-minute commentary film, "Discussion of "The Lottery" by USC English professor Dr. James Durbin. Featuring the film debut of Ed Begley, Jr., Yust's adaptation has an atmosphere of naturalism and small town authenticity with its shots of pick-up trucks and townspeople in Fellows, California. [ [ IMDb, "The Lottery".] ] [ [ Potrzebie: Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"] ]

Anthony Spinner adapted the story into a feature-length TV movie, "The Lottery", which premiered September 29, 1996, on NBC. As expanded by Spinner, the annual lottery is held for religious reasons, and the thriller storyline highlights a love story with the crazed townsfolk and the sadistic lottery as the backdrop. Director Daniel Sackheim filmed in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with a cast that included Keri Russell, Dan Cortese, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Corey, Salome Jens and M. Emmet Walsh. It was nominated for a 1997 Saturn Award for Best Single Genre Television Presentation.

The most recent adaptation is an 11-minute short, "The Lottery", directed by Augustin Kennady on location in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania for Aura Pictures Limited. Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick and his parents portray the Hutchinson family.


Steve Allen updated the past of public lynchings into his futuristic tale, "The Public Hating," published in "Bluebook" (January, 1955) and first collected in Allen's "Fourteen for Tonight" (1955). In Allen's story, filled with casual details of ordinary life, a condemned prisoner is executed by the intense, focused hatred expressed by the people surrounding him in Yankee Stadium and millions more watching on television.

A 2008 episode of "South Park" titled "Britney's New Look" depicted Britney Spears as being chosen as a sacrifice to ensure a good corn harvest. Instead of being stoned to death, she was photographed until she died. Many lines of dialogue during the climactic scene pay homage to "The Lottery", and several shots from the 1969 film are recreated. An old man expresses his support of the tradition by saying, "Sacrifice in March, corn have plenty starch," a direct reference to Old Man Warner's statement in the short story. The mayor of the town in which they kill Britney Spears is named Mayor Summers, a reference to Mr. Summers.

In an episode of "Sliders", "Luck of the Draw", the sliders land in a world where the government employs a population-control lottery: in addition to winning a cash prize, the winners are put to death. In an episode of Adult Swim's "Squidbillies" series villain Dan Halen fixes the lottery so that Early Cuyler wins, only to reveal that he won his own execution, he eventually tries to execute Granny but instead of stoning her to death he attempts to have her ripped apart by monster trucks.

Marilyn Manson made a music video for the 1996 single "Man That You Fear" based on the story, and the post-hardcore band From Autumn to Ashes based their video of "Pioneers" on the story.

Listen to

* [ "NBC Short Story": "The Lottery" (March 14, 1951)]
* [ "The Lottery" read by Maureen Stapleton]
* [ 1988 interview with Judy Oppenheimer by Don Swaim]



*Oppenheimer, Judy. "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson". New York: Putnam, 1988.

ee also

*"The Lottery in Babylon"
*"First they came..."

External links

* [ "Salon": Jonathan Lethem: "Monstrous Acts and Little Murders"]
* [ Twenty Great American Short Stories: "The Lottery" (full text)]
* [ Commentary on Steve Allen's "The Public Hating"]

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