“The Lottery” was published in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II, but Jackson set the story in an indeterminate time and place. Many critics, however, have maintained that Jackson modeled the village after North Bennington, Vermont, where she and her husband lived after their marriage in 1940. After the story was published, some of Jackson’s friends and acquaintances also suggested that many of its characters were modeled after people who lived in North Bennington. Jackson herself, who throughout her life said little about the meaning behind or the circumstances surrounding the story, noted: “I hoped by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general humanity in their own lives.”
Some critics have suggested that “The Lottery” is representative of the social, political, and cultural climate of the time it was written. In 1948 the world was still trying to confront the brutal realities of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb. The Holocaust, in particular, revealed that society is capable of mass genocide if they believe it to be in the name of the common good. Jackson’s husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, once wrote about the influence of world events on Jackson’s fiction: “Her fierce visions of dissociations and madness, of alienation and withdrawal, of cruelty and terror, have been taken to be personal, even neurotic fantasies. Quite the reverse: They are a sensitive and faithful anatomy of our times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the bomb.”
The spread of Communism was also a major concern in 1948. Communists took over in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet occupation force in Germany set up a blockade between Berlin and West Germany, and tensions rose between the democratic Republic of South Korea and Communist-led North Korea. Additionally, the term “Cold War” was coined by President Truman’s advisor Bernard Baruch to describe the increasing hostilities between East and West. In the U.S. Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Alger Hiss, a State Department official accused of supplying the Soviet Union with classified documents. Two years later in 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy started a Communist “witch hunt” that continued for the next four years. Also in 1950, the McCarran Act (Control of Communists Act) was passed by congress to severely restrict suspected Communists. A few years earlier in 1947, many figures in the American entertainment industry were accused of having Communist Party affiliations. That year the Hollywood blacklist, which included some 300 writers, directors, and actors, was compiled. Such popular figures as Charlie Chaplin, Lee Grant, and Arthur Miller were accused of being Communists.
The United States during the late 1940s and 1950s was largely a patriarchal society, one in which women were expected to stay at home and raise the children. Recent critics have interpreted “The Lottery” from a feminist perspective, suggesting that Jackson was commenting on the role of women in American society at the time the story was written. Peter Kosenko, for example, stated in The New Orleans Review in 1985 that in “The Lottery,” the women “have a distinctly subordinate position in the socio-economic hierarchy of the village.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale, 1997.