Jackson establishes the setting of “The Lottery” at the beginning of the story. It takes place on the morning of June 27th, a sunny and pleasant summer day, in the village square of a town of about three hundred people. The setting is described as tranquil and peaceful, with children playing and adults talking about everyday concerns. This seemingly normal and happy setting contrasts greatly with the brutal reality of the lottery. Few clues are given to a specific time and place in the story, a technique used to emphasize the fact that such brutality can take place in any time or in any place.
Jackson’s narrative technique, the way she recounts the events in the story, is often described as detached and objective. Told from a third-person point of view, the narrator is not a participant in the story. The objective tone of the narrative, meaning the story is told without excessive emotionalism or description, helps to impart the ordinariness of the barbaric act.
Jackson uses symbolism, a literary technique in which an object, person, or concept represents something else, throughout “The Lottery.” For example, the story takes place on June 27, near the summer solstice, one of the two days in a year when the earth is farthest from the sun. Many prehistoric rituals took place on the summer solstice, so by setting the lottery at this time, Jackson draws similarities to such ancient rituals. Another symbol in the story is the black box. Although it is old and shabby, the villagers are unwilling or unable to replace it, just as they are unwilling to stop participating in the lottery. Many critics have also argued that Jackson uses name symbology extensively in the story. For example, Mr. Summers’s name is said to represent joviality while Mr. Graves’s name represents tragedy. Delacroix, which in French means “of the cross,” suggests sacrifice because of its reference to Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.
Jackson also uses irony, the recognition of a reality different from appearance, extensively in “The Lottery.” It is ironic that the story takes place in a tranquil and peaceful setting because what actually occurs is brutal and violent. It is also ironic that the events of the story are related in a matter-of-fact and objective way since the story as a whole seeks to elicit profound emotions and question morality.
“The Lottery” is often characterized as a parable, a story that presents a moral lesson through characters who represent abstract ideas. While no extensive character development takes place in the story, the shocking ending prompts readers to think about the moral implications of the lottery and how such issues relate to society as a whole. Certain characters represent certain ideas in the tale: Old Man Warner represents tradition and ritual, Mr. Summers represents joviality, Mr. Graves represents tragedy, and so forth. Jackson does not interject into the story any ethical commentary, but rather challenges readers to find their own meaning.
Gothic literature typically features such elements as horror, the supernatural, suspense, and violence. While “The Lottery” is not graphic in its description of Tessie’s killing, it is considered an example of the Gothic genre because of the feeling of horror it generates in the reader. Because of Jackson’s use of suspense, readers do not understand the full ramifications of the lottery until the end of the story. Readers could, in fact, think that it is a good thing to “win” the lottery. While some critics have faulted this technique, suggesting that Jackson deliberately misleads her readers, others have noted that it is a very effective means of highlighting the brutality of the story. Robert B. Heilman, for example, wrote in Modern Short Stories: A Critical Anthology: “Suddenly, in the midst of this ordinary, matter-of-fact environment, there occurs a terrifying cruel action.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale, 1997.