By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Lottery’ is a famous 1948 short story of the American writer Shirley Jackson. The story focuses on a village where an annual lottery is drawn, with the fate of the person who draws the ‘winning’ slip only revealed at the end of the story. Jackson’s story is about a dark side to human behaviour which had become fully exposed during the horrors of the 1940s, especially in Europe.
In ‘The Lottery’, Jackson uses several key symbols to support and reinforce her story’s key ideas. But the meaning of these symbols, and the precise nature of the symbolism her story uses, require further examination to be fully understood. So let’s take a closer look at the most prominent symbols in this troubling but brilliant story.
Summer is the setting for the story, the events of which take place on the morning of 27 June one year, between ten o’clock in the morning and midday. But this summer setting is also laden with symbolism, because of the significance of crops in the story, and the link which the villagers perceive between their village lottery and the success (or failure) of their harvest that year.
In this connection, it is obviously significant that the man who conducts the lottery is named Mr Summers. It is as if this ‘jovial’ childless man is the embodiment or personification of the summer itself and the ritual the villagers observe to try to make the summer a favourable one for their crops.
The Black Box.
The old black box, which the villagers use every year to draw the name of the unlucky ‘winner’ of the lottery, is also rich in symbolism. Black is the colour of death, of course, and the sombre colour of the box emphasises the seriousness with which the villagers approach their annual ritual, as well as emphasising the grisly fate of the unlucky ‘winner’ of the lottery at the end of the story. (Jackson complicates this symbolism, though, by telling us that the so-called ‘black box’ was not entirely black, since it was so faded and stained.)
But the black box has symbolism for the characters in the story, too. It symbolises the long-standing tradition of the lottery, which has been running for many years; this is why the villagers are reluctant to discard it, despite its shabby appearance. Indeed, there is a story that the present box had been constructed from earlier boxes, providing a link between the present lottery and all the lotteries conducted in previous years.
The black box is also a symbolic link with the origins of the village itself: it is rumoured that the first box (from which this one descends) was created by the founders of the village, long ago.
The Black Spot.
Along with the black box which houses the slips of paper for the lottery, the black spot – made by Mr Summers with his pencil on one of the slips – is full of symbolism and significance. The idea of having a ‘black mark’ against your name is an old phrase, originally derived from the practice of putting a black cross or other mark against the name of a person who has incurred some kind of punishment.
Here, the black spot is somewhat ironic if we bear in mind the idea of a ‘black mark’. Tessie Hutchinson has not done anything to incur her punishment, and it cannot really be described as a ‘punishment’ as such. Instead, she is merely the unlucky one who selects the ‘wrong’ slip of paper.
The Lottery Itself.
The annual lottery is itself rich in symbolism: it embodies the random chance at the heart of the villagers’ ritual, and thus makes what occurs seem even more callous and nonsensical. (The effect is also greatly enhanced by the rather light-hearted way most villagers approach the lottery: Mr Summers is ‘jovial’, there is grinning as the slips are selected, and laughter is mentioned no fewer than seven times.)
Of course, there’s an element of irony in Shirley Jackson’s use of the lottery as a device in her story. Lotteries are usually entered voluntarily by hopeful people who want to win something: money, or prizes. In the community described in her story, the lottery is compulsory and the ‘winner’ is actually the loser.
In this connection, we might draw a parallel with another ‘lottery’ short story produced just a few years before Jackson’s: the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ (1941), which describes a lottery that has been ‘played’ for centuries in the mythical city of Babylon.
Although this lottery initially began as a way of giving away prizes, it eventually developed so that fines would be given out as well as rewards, and participation in the lottery became compulsory. Like Borges, Jackson turns the positive associations of the lottery on their head and makes it a vehicle for blood sacrifice.
Finally, we might reflect upon the symbolism of the stones in the story. Stoning is an ancient method of execution which has been around for thousands of years. It famously features in the Old Testament, and even continues to be practised in certain parts of the world.
There are two things we can observe about this practice. First, it is barbaric, with the victim being assailed continually by sharp stones which gradually injure them until they die from their injuries. Second, it is a punishment carried out by a collective, rather than, say, one axeman or one hangman. This is important for Jackson’s story, of course, because every villager joins in when it is time to advance on Tessie Hutchinson and carry out the sacrifice.