The Lottery by Shirley Jackson: Summary, Plot Analysis and Review

a portrait of shirley jackson and the words "the lottery" written next to it

The Lottery`is a short story written by Shirley Jackson who’s an American author. First published in the New Yorker in 1948, the story is about a strange game of lottery that’s practiced in a village.

Touted as one of the most famous short stories in American literature and first published in New Yorker in 1948, this story’s journey was rocky in the beginning.

It opened to a tremendous negative response by the audience. People felt hurt and it received a lot of hate mails. It  was even banned at some places.

Wondering what so special about it?

Let’s jump right in!

The Lottery: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens in a village square on a bright and beautiful summer day. The village is small with about 300 people and has the usual small place charm.

Everyone knows everyone. Children running around, Wives catching up on the latest gossip and men surveying their children and talking about plantation and taxes before families start standing together in groups.

The families have assembled for the annual lottery event. This event takes much longer in other towns but the small size of this town works to the villagers’ advantage. The event gets over in no more than two hours.

Children, who have just gotten off school are running around with stones in their pockets, while some others arrange them in a pile on the ground.

A man called Mr. Summers runs the lottery because he has a lot of time at his disposal for the village.

He arrives in the square with the black box, followed by Mr. Graves, the postmaster. The black box is older than the oldest man in the village. Mr Warner attempts to get a new one but is thwarted in the name of tradition.

Mr. Summers jumbles up the slips of papers in the box. Note that at this point the reader is unaware of the content in those paper slips.

portrait of shirley jackson
Shirley Jackson – the author of The Lottery

Mr Summers and the postmaster made the paper slips the night before and locked it up in his coal company. As a prerequisite to the lottery, a list of families is made and members from each household are identified to be representing the family for the event.

Mr Summers is sworn in, albeit without the customary salute or song that’s used to characterize such events in the past.

A village woman Tessie Hutchinson joins the crowd late, visibly flustered having forgotten the day to be the lottery day. People joke about her late arrival in a playful manner.

Mr Summers confirms with the crowd about everyone’s presence for the event and makes sure that there is someone to draw for every family.

He then proceeds with a reminder about the lottery rules: he will read family names and the identified family heads will come and draw a slip of paper and no one is to look at their slips until every family has drawn.

While people continue to draw slips of paper from Mr Summers’ box, Mr Adams and old man Warner strike up a conversation about some other village taking on the lottery tradition, mentioning that some wanted to discontinue it.

Old man Warner ridicules the idea saying that it is as bad as going back to the caves and that it’s trouble and nothing else.

Everyone has finished drawing papers and now the family heads open the papers. Word quickly travels that Bill Hutchinson has got it.

Tessie starts complaining about the unfairness of the draw considering that her husband got very little time to draw a paper. Mr. Summers asks Hutchinsons if there are other members in their family. He confirms.

There are five papers now to draw from. One for each member of the Hutchinson family. Each member draws their paper, and opens their slips. Tessie receives a paper with a black dot on it. Mr Summers then instructs the villagers to hurry up.

All villagers grab stones and run towards Tessie, who is now standing in the middle of the crowd. She continues to complain about the unfairness of the lottery until she is hit by a stone on her head, and then everyone begins throwing stones at her.

The Lottery: Review & My Thoughts

The first time I read the story, I was shell shocked at the ending.

Although Jackson dropped quite a few hints about the lottery not being a traditional one that comes to mind when you see or hear this word. I was not prepared for the end.

I thought I read it wrong; but no, I read it right. She was stoned to death by people she knew, she gossiped with. Hell! Her own family!

The idea was very bizarre to me, and I was finding it hard to digest. It didn’t sit well with me.

Up until the absolutely unexpected ending, there were a few references in the story that I marveled at:

“It was clear and sunny, with fresh warmth of a full summer day”

I know I might be over-crediting this line, but summers are rare in the place I live and what bad could ever happen on such a nice summer day!

About how children shall always be children:

“The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them.”

How men taking a central role in a family is okay, but women doing the same is not.

“Wife draws for her husband, Mr Summers said. “Don’t you have a grown boy to do it for you Janey?”

I did see eerie signs but chose to ignore them, clues spread all throughout the story about lottery not being the traditional one: why was Tessie constantly complaining about getting the lottery? It’s lucky to win one and people want to win it, right?

We would instinctively trace it back to the dark ages if we ever hear of an incident like this in reality.

With all of the human rights commissions that we have now, yes, an act like this is not going to get unnoticed, and I sure would like to believe that they would play an instrumental role in curbing a horrible, inhuman practice like this.

But does that mean that we are not slave to tradition now in these times?

Mrs Hutchinson’s death is an extreme example of how societies can perpetrate all sorts of injustices for reasons that defy logic.

The targeted individual could be a different race, a different sex, follower of a different religion, of a different economic class, something that he or she can not control but has to pay the price for.

Just as villagers blindly follow tradition to stone Tessie to death, real life villains carry out atrocities without questioning the tradition or the widely held belief – however flawed it might be.

All this is to say that the ending of the story made me think. A LOT.

And that is the power of a great story. Publishing something like this in 1948! Shirley Jackson was undoubtedly way ahead of her times.

It pains me to think how much flak she received for this. Bombarded with hate mail in hundreds all through the summer when it was first published.

The story left me speechless.

Thank you, Shirley Jackson!

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