Reverse engineering “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Writing Excuses 10.9 had us figuring out how an author puts a story together. The assignment was to dissect a piece of media—novel, story, comic, movie, or TV show—to see what promises the author made and how (s)he fulfilled them. We needed to determine the story type (a la Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient) and what the story’s tone and genre were.
I chose “The Lottery” because it is short, famous, and easy to find. If you have never read “The Lottery” or would like a refresher on this short (about 3400 words) story, it can be found online here. If you’re not already familiar, I highly recommend reading it before continuing, because this post is positively rife with spoilers.
Here’s a presentation I put together for my writing peeps at the Journey:
I argued that “The Lottery” was an Idea story. Given the title, we know a lottery will be held, but we don’t know what the “winner” receives. The story will be over when we know what the prize (or in this case the consequence) is. The story question—what is this lottery and what will it mean to the characters?—is what keeps the reader reading.
Genre: in keeping with the idea of reverse engineering, I looked at the end first. It’s horrifying, so while it doesn’t start with the typical horror details, at heart it’s a horror story. Whoever draws the marked paper is stoned to death. In the case of this particular story, it was important for the tone in the beginning to contrast sharply with the tone of the ending to increase the horror.
The story begins with the description of a particularly beautiful summer day. The people of this small village gather for a timeless ritual. The mood seems one of anticipation, both nervous and somewhat solemn. Folks are friendly to one another, and everyone seems to know everyone else. There’s some joking and smiling, though the men seem less enthusiastic about it than the boys or very young children do.
The foreshadowing in the beginning is almost throwaway: the middle-grade boys piling up stones. There’s no mention of what the stones are for, and only the boys seem to pay much attention to them at first, though the grown men do stand away from the pile. It’s easy for a reader to think this is some kids’ game and it may not mean anything at all.
The story is told all in one continuous scene, but it can be divided by several events or entrances.
It’s a beautiful summer day in a small village. The scene is set as young boys seem to play some kind of game with piles of stones, the girls also gather, and the men stand around chatting. The women soon arrive and the villagers sort themselves into family groups. The children are still lighthearted, while there’s some tension from at least one of the adults, Mr. Martin, who sharply calls his son Bobby back to his family and away from the pile of stones.
- Revealed: Where and when are we? 20th century America.
- Conflict: the tension of waiting for the event to start; making the children behave properly.
- Remaining questions: what is the lottery? Who will win it, and what might they win?
Mr. Summers arrives with the lottery box. People hold themselves away from the box, hesitating when Mr. Summers asks for help. Some history of the box is shared, including the villager’s attachment to it. There’s also allusion to the antiquity of the lottery, and how the town and the ritual itself have changed over the years.
- Revealed: How the lottery is usually conducted, that it’s a special event, but it’s also very traditional, and who’s in charge.
- Conflict: implied conflicts around people wanting to retain all the traditions even though some details have necessarily changed over the years.
- Remaining questions: What happens next? How will Mr. Summers proceed?
Mrs. Hutchinson arrives, having almost forgotten it was lottery day. She’s cheerful about her lateness and there’s some good-natured teasing and back-and-forth between Mrs. Hutchinson and Mr. Summers. Then everyone settles back into place. I find this authorial choice particularly masterful: Mrs. Hutchinson almost seems like an afterthought. Though she ends up being the pivotal character, she seems no more important than any other character. She enters late, which helps the reader focus on her, but at first (since everyone has a name when referred to individually) she doesn’t seem any more important than anyone else. Then she gets a first name, so that adds more weight to her appearance, but not a hell of a lot. It’s introduced very naturally, as Summers teases her. It makes sense in context. On first reading it doesn’t come across as if the author is saying: “Here. Pay attention to this character.”
- Revealed: All the forms have been observed: now we can begin.
- Conflict: Mild commentary about Mrs. Hutchinson’s lateness; it’s treated as if it wasn’t a big deal, but clearly her husband wondered where she was and Mr. Summers wasn’t going to start until he was sure everyone had arrived, so people have had to wait.
- Remaining questions: Still…what’s going to happen with this lottery?!
When the first man comes up to draw, he and Summers greet each other “humorlessly and nervously.” The reader gets another inkling that this village may not be as bucolic as it seems. Each family representative takes a folded paper and holds it until every family has drawn before looking at it. People wait quietly, wetting their lips, not looking around. As the drawing continues, people mention that not all the towns around here still hold the lottery. Conflict in the form of Old Man Warner, who mocks that notion and introduces the saying (and the lottery’s rationale), “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The reader understands the pull of tradition that people are feeling, despite the fact that some of the characters are growing nervous, saying they wish it were all over. Mrs. Hutchinson, however, jovially prods her husband to “Get on up there, Bill” when it’s his turn.
- Revealed: How the lottery is conducted
- Conflict: People are suddenly serious, concerned about the result.
- Remaining questions: Who’s going to draw the “winning” paper?
THE STORY TURNS HERE! When it becomes that Bill Hutchinson drew the “winning” paper, panic sets in, at least for Mrs. Hutchinson. The reader is left in no doubt: winning this lottery is not a good thing, despite social pressure from the other villagers to continue. It’s not even a question that this ritual will go on until the end.
- Revealed: The Hutchinson family draws the marked paper.
- Conflict: Despite the outside influence of other towns giving up the lottery, this village wants to keep it to ensure a good harvest. Tess Hutchinson is not happy about the result. The rest of the village exerts pressure on her to “be a good sport.”
- Remaining questions: What does this mean for the Hutchinsons? Why does Tess resist and start to complain?
The conflict then becomes focused between Mrs. Hutchinson and the rest of the village. The author seems to slow time at this point; there’s a surprising amount of detail packed into few words as each member of the Hutchinson family comes up to take their papers. The smallest child’s paper is open first, and the whole crowd breathes a sigh of relief when it’s shown to be blank. As each of the other kids open their papers, more relief is expressed. Mr. Hutchinson’s paper is also blank. We know, at this point, that Mrs. Hutchinson (who was cheerful about the proceedings until she started to look like the winner/victim) is about to get it.
- Revealed: Mrs. Hutchinson is the one chosen via the lottery.
- Conflict: Mrs. Hutchinson doesn’t want to be chosen, but she has no choice.
- Remaining questions: Why is Mrs. Hutchinson freaking out?
Perhaps the most chilling part of the story comes when someone gives little Davy Hutchinson a handful of pebbles to throw at his mother. This moment really drives home Shirley Jackson’s point about mindless conformity: teach children at a young age to do this, no matter what the ramifications.
- Revealed: the person chosen by the lottery is stoned to death.
- Conflict: Everyone must do the stoning, even the victim’s family.
- Remaining questions: Geeze, Grandpa, why did you make me read this? But seriously: what was Shirley Jackson trying to say with this story? Did she succeed?
Still More Thoughts:
I thought it clever of Shirley Jackson to have the main character arrive with, perhaps, some premonition of her own fate. Is some unconscious dread why Mrs. Hutchinson was late to the drawing? Was her seemingly flippant “get on up there, Bill” a way to conceal her own uneasiness? Jackson was also clever to make Mrs. H. progressively less likable. As soon as the lottery hones in on her family, she gets whiny and shows herself to be, as one of the villagers says, “not a good sport.” Because she grows less likable/conformist, you get the sense that perhaps this village has held onto the lottery tradition (while others have abandoned it) because the victims start to stir a kind of bloodlust. Maybe most or all of the victims begin to make themselves unlikable, and thus, easier to kill.
Setting: One of the elements of tone that I think makes this story so interesting is that, while there’s a concerted effort to be nonspecific in terms of place, and the ritual itself seems quite archaic—maybe something out of druid times—the setting is very American. It was also a contemporary setting at the time it was published (1948). Everyone pays taxes; the kids all go to school; there are tractors. There’s also a mix of last names. In addition to the English-sounding ones, there are names like Delacroix and Zanini. Then there’s the casualness of the whole affair. In the past there was apparently chant and a ritual salute the lottery official offered to those who drew from the box. Now the whole affair is handled so efficiently everyone can get home in time for lunch. The exhortations not to fuss, to be a good sport, all seem very American as well. In any case, it’s the contrast of peaceful, apparently civilized setting and the horrible event that makes this story unforgettable.