The Lottery Summary

Shirley Jackson

The Lottery

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The Lottery Summary

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“The Lottery,” a short story by Shirley Jackson published in 1948, opens on what can be described as an idyllic scene in a small village with green grass, budding flowers, and polite small town folks gathering in the town square. From this early point in the plot of “The Lottery” it would seem to the uninformed reader that we are about to encounter a happy story, perhaps about someone about to win some great prize. There are clues, also called foreshadowing, contained in this early part of “The Lottery” that stain the image of small town perfection we’re being asked to envision. For instance, we notice that there is a careful gathering of stones into a pile that the adult men, who are polite but we begin to notice, a bit restrained, wish to keep their distance from. It is clear from this point in the plot of “The Lottery” that the stones are the markers of something that reminds of them of a negative experience or event.

Everyone is milling about in this “typical” small town when the lottery finally begins. According to the narrator of “The Lottery,” “The lottery was conducted—as were the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program—by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities” (212). This is one of the important quotes from “The Lottery” because it shows that this lottery is considered a civic or community activity by the people of the town, just as a dance or other club event might be. This fact becomes more chilling as the reader realizes what the lottery really is.

To aid in the conducting of the lottery, the postmaster brings out a stool and an old black wooden box that is so aged that it is splintered and faded. The narrator tells us that the original box was itself also incredibly old, saying “the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born” (212) which indicates that the lottery has been going on for a very, very long time. Other clues throughout the next couple of pages show too that it is a long-standing tradition that dates back to the first settlers of the village. The lottery even has a bunch of rituals and traditions associated with it, including a formal swearing-in of the official. Despite the level of ritual and tradition with the lottery, the box itself never stays in the same place every year but is moved around, often carelessly, sent to barns and sometimes a shelf in the grocery store.

The lottery begins with a great amount of ceremony and it is clear that the traditions and rituals surrounding the lottery are so old that only a few remember what things used to be like. The narrator tells us that “There was the proper swearing-in of Mr. Summers by the post-master as the official of the lottery at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year” (213). There is also a great amount of detail given about heads of households and family members and customs about which genders draw for which in the absence of one or another. At this point in the plot of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, the description of the rituals ends and we are brought back to the present as a woman named Mrs. Hutchinson comes running in, late because she forgot the date. The crowd laughs politely—in fact, everyone is always softly, politely smiling or laughing, that is, until the formal process of drawing names begins.

Mr. Summers reads the names of heads of households first and they all come up solemnly to draw one slip of paper from the box. They are nervous and grave when they do so—tension falls over the crowd. The men do not look at the slips of paper, they just go anxiously back to their spot and hold on to their papers. This plot summary of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson could go on about the conversation that goes on in the audience, but it is mostly building dramatic tension at this point and none is important (outside of showing that the villagers try to engage in nervous small talk) except for the fact that some of them talk about how other communities have done away with the lottery.

Amid the talk of how other communities have eliminated their lottery, Old Man Warner scolds them for listening to the foolish talk. He goes on about how the young people are ignorant, trying to change the venerable institutions of the past. He says of listening to young people about how society should be, “next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’….There’s always been a lottery” (215). This is the same man who proudly proclaims it’s his seventy-seventh lottery. Again, the theme of tradition, even if it seems wrong and there are notes of dissent about its purpose and value, emerges.

Mr. Summers gives the okay for everyone to open their slips of paper and a nervous energy pervades; at first no one moves, then they all open theirs and look around to see who the “winner” is. It is the Hutchinsons, which in this ritual lottery, means that the head of the household has to go up the box again and so do the members of his family, including his wife and children, one of whom is too young to even hold the paper. Mrs. Hutchinston, whose first name is Tessie, proclaims that it was not fair, that Bill did not have time to choose the piece of paper he wanted.

Despite the fact that villagers are not heeding her and in fact, seem bothered that she is making such a fuss, she is adamant about this. Everyone ignores her and her husband quietly tells her to shut up. Everyone from the family is to draw again but Tessie again speaks up, saying that her in-laws, Don and Eva, should also be forced to draw, which is rather dark, considering that she immediately puts their lives in danger (although a first time reader might not recognize the significance of this suggestion). She is shushed and told to “be a good sport” (216) and the whole family draws and is told not to look until everyone has a slip of paper. This includes a small child, Davy, who is so small that his brother has to help him.

The “winner” of the lottery is Tessie, it turns out, a fact that is known because one slip of paper has a large black dot. Upon learning this, “Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and forced the slip of paper out of her hands” and with no emotion, no tearful seeing off of his dear wife, the end of the lottery begins and the winner is given her prize. The children and everyone else goes over the stone pile and they begin to choose their stones, some opting for very heavy ones. Without any sign of remorse, they begin to throw them at Tessie, who has been moved to a spot inside of a circle. The last lines of “The Lottery” have Tessie screaming that it isn’t fair, “and then they were upon her” (219).

The plot of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson ends here with no sense of conclusion, no sad farewells, no upset members of the village that one of their own is being stoned. Her husband is not mentioned again. It is just her alone being pelted by stones. The most important thing that is not mentioned at any point is whether or not she is going to be stoned to death, but I think we can all make an educated guess on that one, can’t we?