What’s Going On in the Lottery?

When you think of lottery, you probably picture a big prize – like winning the Powerball jackpot. But there are a lot more things going on in the lottery that aren’t as obvious. Lotteries are also a way for people to gamble on other stuff, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school.

In Jackson’s story, villagers gather in a bucolic, small-town square for the annual lottery. Children on summer break are among the first to assemble, then adult men and women join them. They display the stereotypical normalcy of small-town life, warmly gossiping and discussing work.

Then Mr. Summers, the master of ceremonies for this town’s lottery, carries out an old black box. He stirs up the papers inside it. The heads of families then select paper slips from the box. They carefully avoid looking at their selections, while others scoff at the practice.

After all the names have been read, Mr. Summers tells everyone to open their slips. A general sigh is let out when little Dave’s and Nancy’s are revealed to be blank. But the real shock comes when Tessie’s bears a single black spot.

In the story, Shirley Jackson suggests several important messages about this behavior. One is that we should stand up against authority when it’s wrong. Even if everybody else wants to do something, that doesn’t make it right. Another is that democracy can be cruel, as demonstrated when the villagers turn against Tessie. Finally, the story illustrates that evil can thrive in the most peaceful-looking places.