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How is the tone of The Lottery ironic?

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson employs irony to great effect. The story, which depicts a fictional small town’s annual lottery to determine who will be stoned to death, uses irony to highlight the pointless brutality behind the tradition. Though the lottery is couched in pleasant rhetoric about civic duty and upholding tradition, its true nature becomes clear as the narrative evolves. The ironic tone underscores how mindless adherence to barbaric rituals can enable evil.

Pleasant Framing

The Lottery is told in a conversational, folksy tone that evokes a peaceful summertime setting. The villagers casually gather in the town square, exchanging small talk about planting crops and local gossip. Children laugh and play while gathering stones. This cheerful framing masks the ritual’s sinister purpose:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

The pleasant imagery of a “fresh” and “richly green” summer day contradicts the bloody ritual about to occur. This ironic contrast between innocent appearances and the event’s dark reality permeates the narrative.

Upbeat Attitudes

The villagers display curiously upbeat attitudes while preparing for the lottery. They laugh and smile, showing no dread or objection to the impending violence:

The people had done it so many times that they only half listened to the directions; most of them were quiet, wetting their lips, not looking around. Then Mr. Summers raised one hand high and said, “Adams.” A man disengaged himself from the crowd and came forward. “Hi, Steve.” Mr. Summers said. The man nodded. “Hi, Joe.”

Their casual indifference underscores how the lottery’s brutality stems from unthinking adherence to tradition. The irony highlights the danger of blind obedience to inhumane practices.

Oblivious Children

The children in the story are oblivious to the lottery’s purpose, merrily collecting rocks and stones to be used to stone the “winner” to death:

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”—eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.

The ironic image of children gleefully gathering lethal weapons underscores how implicating them in violence perpetuates its cycle. Their innocence heightens the cruelty of the ritual.

Numbered Slips

The slips of paper used for the lottery drawing evoke harmless raffles or drawings. However, here they seal someone’s death sentence:

Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. When the villagers drew slips of paper from it, they were committing an act with the weight of centuries of ritual behind it.

The tension between the slips’ mundane appearance and lethal purpose highlights the irony of how quaint traditions can enable unconscionable acts.

Stoning Ritual

Once Tessie Hutchinson is selected by the lottery, the stoning procedure begins in an alarmingly procedural, matter-of-fact way:

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box. Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”

The nonchalant attitude toward orchestrated murder underscores the village’s ethical corruption through ritualization. Stoning a human to death has become comparable to running mundane errands.

Dramatic Reversal

When Tessie Hutchinson is selected as the lottery “winner,” her perspective shifts dramatically from complacency to desperation:

“It wasn’t fair!” she screamed, and then they were upon her.

The same ritual that seemed harmless before is now—only for the victim—revealed as the monstrosity it is. Tessie’s desperate protests highlight the lottery’s inherent cruelty, which the other villagers fail to recognize.


Through irony, Jackson exposes how tradition can sanction atrocity. The story critiques blind adherence to rituals and the danger of groupthink mentality. The lottery’s casual tone belies its brutal nature, underscoring how rationalization enables acts of evil. Ordinary people commit heinous acts through incremental steps framed as civic duty. By depicting immoral traditions in a folksy tone, Jackson provokes readers to question rites in their own lives that may conceal untold cruelty. The story’s ironic treatment of setting, attitudes, activities and reversals generates an unsettling “empathy gap,” inviting introspection into the ways we perpetuate injustice through group contagion and the banality of evil.

Key Points

  • The story uses a cheerful, conversational tone that belies the dark ritual of the lottery.
  • Villagers display curiously upbeat attitudes while preparing for the violent ritual.
  • The obliviousness of the children underscores how implicating them in violence perpetuates its cycle.
  • Numbered slips used for the drawing evoke raffles, contrasting with their lethal purpose.
  • The casual procedural atmosphere of the stoning ritual underscores the village’s ethical corruption.
  • When selected as the victim, Tessie’s perspective shifts dramatically to terror and desperation.
  • Through irony, Jackson critiques how tradition can enable atrocity and blind conformity.

The story utilizes irony to emphasize how even well-intentioned people can enable injustice through blind adherence to groupthink and empty rituals. The casual tone masks the lottery’s true brutality, challenging readers to reflect on complicity in immoral systems and traditions closer to home.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does the setting contribute to the irony?

The peaceful, pleasant village setting serves as an ironic contrast to the violent ritual of the lottery. Descriptions of a fresh summer day with flowers blooming heighten the discrepancy between the horrific event and its seemingly innocuous context.

How do the villagers’ attitudes contribute to the irony?

The villagers display curiously casual, even cheerful, attitudes while preparing for the lottery, underscoring how ritualization and tradition normalize acts of violence. Their upbeat mood as they ready themselves to stone someone to death highlights the absurdity and horror of the ritual.

Why is the children’s obliviousness ironic?

The children happily collecting stones to violently stone someone underscores their unawareness of the lottery’s true nature. Their innocence highlights how implicating them in orchestrated murder will perpetuate its cycle by conditioning them to violence.

How do the slips contrast with their purpose?

The lottery slips evoke harmless raffles, contrasting starkly with their use to select someone for ritual sacrifice. This ironic discrepancy underscores how innocuous traditions can enable unconscionable brutality.

How does Tessie Hutchinson’s reversal highlight irony?

When selected as the lottery “winner,” Tessie shifts dramatically from complacency to desperation, underscoring the ritual’s inherent cruelty which the other villagers fail to recognize. Her terrified protests highlight the irony of the lottery as a deadly rite masked with pleasant rhetoric.

Historical Context

“The Lottery” was published in 1948, against the backdrop of World War II and the Nuremberg trials exposing the horrors of the Holocaust. The conformity of the villagers likely reflected the Incremental steps, rationalization, and groupthink that enabled fascism’s rise and unimaginable atrocities. The story underscores how average people can enable injustice through blind adherence to group contagion and empty traditions.

Critical Analysis

Scholar Hayden Head has noted how the story “exemplifies communality gone wrong.” The village represents a collectivist microcosm where individual conscience is subsumed by pressures to conform, no matter how unethical the ritual. Literary critic Neil Brooks argues the story is “an explicit parable about some of the central flaws in the human character.” Brooks asserts that it explores moral questions around scapegoating, peer pressure, and the intersection between tradition and ethics.

Feminist scholars have also analyzed gender roles in the narrative. Helen Nebeker notes how the lottery is administered by male leaders, suggesting patriarchal domination of the ritual. Some posit Tessie’s selection represents vulnerability of women to victimization by violent traditions. Feminist writer Marcia Lieberman asserts that Tessie’s protests can be seen as demanding women’s autonomy over their own bodies and lives.

The story has drawn criticism for its graphic violence, but most scholars highlight how the horror underscores its condemnation of blind conformity and ritualization. Its visceral imagery shocks readers out of complacency to reflect on their own ethical responsibility.

Similar Works

Jackson’s ironic treatment of violence and mob mentality bears parallels to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, published in 1954, which uses ironic juxtaposition to highlight how civilization fails to constrain human brutality.

Shirley Jackson’s characteristic fusion of surface tranquility masking sinisterness also evokes the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, who similarly used small-town Americana settings to expose human darkness.

The theme of futile resistance to communal rituals also connects the story to Franz Kafka’s fictional world, particularly The Trial, which depicts bureaucratic brutality against a helpless individual.

Like Jackson’s fiction, the satire of Mark Twain also uses irony to critique societal failings and mob mentality. Commentators have compared The Lottery to Twain’s short story The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, which likewise depicts a town’s betrayal of its own moral code.

Primary Themes

The Danger of Blind Obedience to Tradition

The village’s unquestioning fidelity to the murderous lottery ritual underscores Jackson’s warning about blind conformity to tradition. Even when they forget its purpose, they adhere to its procedures. This reflects the human tendency to follow established patterns without assessing their ethics.

The Capacity for Evil Within Ordinary People

Jackson suggests that ritualization and passive conformity can normalize acts of atrocity even among decent people. No villager questions the lottery’s morality. This reflects how groupthink and deference to authority can numb individual ethics and implicate ordinary citizens in systems of oppression.

Scapegoating and Victimization

The arbitrary selection of a villager as the lottery “winner” highlights dangers of the human impulse for scapegoating. Tessie becomes an innocent victim led to slaughter through adherence to superstition masked as tradition. Jackson implies that any of us could become Tessie in the right circumstances.

Ironic Juxtaposition Revealing Absurdity

The contrasts between the lottery’s facade of quaint tradition and its brutal purpose, underscored through irony, provokes recognition of this absurdity. Irony highlights discrepancies between appearances and reality, or ideals and practices, compelling moral reflection.

Use of Setting and Imagery

The story’s bucolic small-town setting serves as an ironic contrast underscoring the horror of the ritual murder. Blooming flowers, green grass and small-town familiarity heighten the discrepancy between the scene’s tranquility and the sinister ritual it frames.

Specific images like the black box worn with usage over centuries and villagers wetting their lips in suspense evoke how tradition and collective excitement perpetuate the group mentality enabling the violence. Descriptions of laughing children obliviously gathering lethal stones heighten the brutality.

Response and Impact

The story generated controversy and varied interpretations upon its release. Many readers sent hate mail accusing Jackson of anti-Americanism during the Cold War period when conformity was valorized. Scholar Christopher Sergel asserts that revisiting the story after the Holocaust and Milgram obedience experiments lent it wider resonance.

The tale made Shirley Jackson a leading voice of post-war existentialist fiction. Its discomfiting critique of conformity and ethics continues to provoke debate on the psychology enabling violence and oppression. It remains widely studied as a cautionary tale about the absurdity and danger of unjust traditions.


Through masterful irony and an affectless conversational tone, Shirley Jackson exposes the horror lurking beneath traditions of conformity and groupthink in “The Lottery.” The false sense of comforting ritual masks brutal violence enacted by average people. Jackson sounds a timeless warning about the individual’s ethical duty to question acts sanctioned by the power of the group and the inertia of tradition. The story compels self-reflection on our own potential complicity in systems and practices that perpetuate harm, despite their familiarity or continued acceptance. Its ironic juxtaposition of bucolic Americana with ritualized murder continues to haunt and provoke readers, underscoring literature’s power to shake us from complacency and illuminate human complexity.