My Analysis of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

To begin with, go read The Lottery.

Don't worry it's short and generally considered to be one of the best short stories of all time.

Done with that good. I'll skip most of the recap since you just read the story and go into my thoughts. I'll begin with one of my favorite writing devices that happens early one. I call it vague specificity though I suspect there is a more formal term. Consider for a moment the first paragraph. You get a lot of specific details. You know the exact day, you know the weather, you know what everyone is doing and the size of the village. But, at the same time none of those details actually tell you where this is. The village doesn’t have a name, there is no mention of the United States of America or anyplace else. This makes the village feel real and universal and yet also no place at all.

Most of the early story is about setting a mood. It Shirley Jackson goes out of her way to tell you the full names of characters and what they are doing. If you've ever heard stories about a small town from someone who has lived there a long time that type of storytelling feels familiar. This makes the village in this story feel even more like a real place that the author has visited. Of course all of that is vitally important because the more comfortable you are the more impact the end of the story will have.

The real story then begins, though the first time you read it you probably won't understand the significance of most of what is happening and if it wasn't the title you might not know that The Lottery was even all that important. One of the things you'll learn is that the lottery is older than anyone here. This isn't something the people are choosing to do it is a ritual that no one thinks about it anymore. That idea is central to the message of this story. The idea that people can become so controlled by the way things are that they never stop to think about why they are that way.

One thing that struck me this time was the dialog. It is of course colloquial to a time and place that was considerably more normal when the story was written but still feels real. Having the dialog feel natural and comfortable is another way to bring you into the community of this small village as much as possible.

About halfway through the story you can, especially if you have read the story before, begin to see some of the cracks in the facade. A young boy is nervous, but that may just be speaking in front of the crowd of people, and two people are described as grinning at each other humorlessly and nervously. But this is a small town and anyone who has spent any time in a small community knows there is always someone upset with someone else so that doesn't tell you as much as it seems. A bit later you see someone upset when drawing from the lottery box because they need more time to pick out the paper they want making it clear that tensions are high and that the Lottery is important.

By the time the "winner" is picked it becomes clear something odd is happening. There is a growing sense of dread as they force the paper out of Tessie's hand. At this point we see the black spot. This is repeated a couple of times and even though it is a mundane term it does have a feeling of weight in part because of that repetition.

The story ends quickly. There is nothing left to tell once the first stones are thrown. You know perfectly well what will happen. But it does leave unanswered the obvious question. Why is this happening? This question is vital because of two things. First, questions are more interesting than answers and secondly because it seems clear that no one in the village is asking that question. It is happening because that is what they do and yet the tension and subtle reactions of the people make it clear that they understand it is not entirely natural or right.

Like anyone who reads The Lottery I come up with my own answers for why The Lottery is happening. And in fact there are a number of stories that take the questions this brings up and runs with it. I don't know if The Purge movies are inspired directly by Shirley Jackson but it seems impossible they aren't at least indirectly. In that movie the idea is that people need a way to get out their aggression so they will be better the rest of the year. I think this is an insane idea, but I could be wrong. Perhaps when you're angry at someone knowing that they may win the lottery would help to calm you. Or perhaps having helped kill someone the idea of hurting someone would become more repugnant rather than socially acceptable.

Another possibly, one that I think is a bit more modern, is the idea of overpopulation. Perhaps at some point the world population became unsustainable and the lottery was created as a way to solve that problem. If that is true then by the time the story The Lottery takes place it seems clear that the problem has been solved, but the lottery is still happening.

Of course these are only two of a hundred different possible reason for the lottery. Which takes us back to the point that a good question is almost always more interesting than the answer. That is certainly the case in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which gives very few real answers yet is still able to shine a light on one of humanities biggest flaws which is that we will often continue to do the same thing mindlessly even when anyone who thought about it could see it was wrong and while it might be easier for us to see the flaws in the society of the 1940's when this was written that is in large part the point. It's easy to see the flaws in something unusual but far harder when it has become normalized.

If you like The Lottery you will probably like the story of Vault 11 in Fallout New Vegas interesting as well. It is one of the best examples of storytelling in a video game I have ever seen by allowing you all the freedom you want in a game and still making certain you understand the story and as I am sure you can guess it is inspired by The Lottery.

I can't say I have written anything like Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery," but I do try to subvert expectations in many of my stories. One of them which I think does this fairly well is "An Eternity." which you can read on this very blog.