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Is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson based on a true story?

Shirley Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery is a staple of high school English curriculums and a chilling tale of conformity gone awry. First published in The New Yorker in 1948, the story generated more reader response than any other piece in the magazine’s history. Readers were horrified by the description of a small town’s annual lottery that ends with the ritualistic stoning of one unlucky resident.

The Lottery’s shocking narrative left many wondering if Jackson based her fiction on real events. Was there ever a village that practiced a deadly lottery ritual? Did Jackson uncover a dark secret in America’s folk traditions? Or is the story pure invention?

The Inspiration Behind The Lottery

In the decades since The Lottery’s publication, literary scholars have thoroughly investigated the sources that inspired Shirley Jackson. They have concluded that the story is entirely a work of fiction and not based directly on any specific true events. However, Jackson did draw inspiration from a few real-world sources:

Ancient Ritual Sacrifices

Jackson was fascinated by the occult and readers have noted parallels between The Lottery and ancient pagan rituals. Ancient cultures around the world practiced human sacrifice, often by lottery, to appease their gods. For example, in ancient Hawaii men would draw stones to choose which of them was sacrificed. Ancient Carthaginians sacrificed infants by lottery. Greek legends tell of a young woman and young man randomly chosen each year to be sent into a labyrinth with the Minotaur. While horrific to modern sensibilities, ritual sacrifice was common in antiquity. Jackson seems to have been inspired by the eerie randomness of selecting a sacrificial victim by chance rather than choice.

The Salem Witch Trials

The stoning murder in The Lottery evokes incidents from colonial America. Although Jackson did not mention it directly, critics have noted that fatal stonings were once used to punish accused witches in 17th century New England. Most famously, elderly farmer Giles Corey was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to enter a plea during the Salem Witch Trials. The randomness of witchcraft accusations, much like the deadly lottery, doubtless inspired Jackson.

Contemporary “Ritual Murders”

In the early 20th century, US tabloids occasionally reported on so-called “ritual murders” said to be practiced by sometimes immigrants or other marginalized groups. Sensationalist articles described occult sacrifices, though details were often fabricated or unverified. Jackson was an avid reader of tabloids and true crime and may have encountered articles about contemporary “ritual killings” before writing her story. The unfounded reports likely provided additional inspiration for The Lottery’s fictional sacrifice.

Spring Corn Festivals

The cheery beginning of The Lottery’s annual event echoes real small town seasonal festivals. Jackson places the lottery on June 27th, near the summer solstice. She describes townsfolk chatting casually before the shocking ritual. This mundane prelude mirrors the lighthearted early mood of harvest festivals, county fairs, and other community gatherings. While Jackson invented the deadly lottery, prosaic rural festivals provided a realistic backdrop. The lottery’s horrors emerge unexpectedly from wholesome traditions.

Class Divisions

While not based on any specific events, Jackson did comment on real social structures in The Lottery. The story highlights class division in the townspeople’s lottery procedures. Wealthier villagers are favored, drawing slips from a high-quality black box while poorer residents use a splintered, decaying box. Some critics have interpreted these disparities as a commentary on capitalism. Jackson seems to be commenting on real economic inequality rather than recounting an actual event.

Patriarchal Traditions

The lottery also reveals the fictional village’s patriarchal structure. Men run the lottery while women remain subordinate. This gender disparity reflects the male-dominated society of Jackson’s era. Male leaders justify the lottery tradition despite protests from some villagers. Jackson does not derive this patriarchal hierarchy from any specific village, but critiques the broader sexism of 1940s America.

In summary, Shirley Jackson cleverly blended fact and fiction when developing the setting, imagery, and cultural context of The Lottery. She drew inspiration from unusual real phenomena like ancient sacrifices, witch hunts, sensational media, and patriarchal traditions. However, The Lottery’s narrative is entirely fictional. While shocking and realistic, the tale of a stoning ritual murder is Jackson’s creative invention. She crafted a disturbing allegory about conformity using ideas from the real world rather than chronicling any actual events.

Reactions Indicate The Lottery is Fiction

The public reaction to The Lottery in 1948 confirms that Jackson presented a fully fictional story, not an expose of any actual practices. Readers were horrified precisely because the subject was unfamiliar yet described realistically.

Outrage and Disgust

Letters flooded into The New Yorker expressing revulsion and outrage. Many vowed to cancel their subscriptions following the upsetting tale. These shocked reactions indicate the story described an invented, fictional event. If Jackson had accurately reported on a real village conducting human sacrifice, readers would likely have been disturbed for different reasons concerning the truth of the report. Their shock centered on the grisly imaginary ritual.

Anthropological Interest

Some early readers were intrigued by the story’s anthropological implications. They asked Jackson where the setting was located and if the lottery still took place annually. This curiosity reflects assumptions that the tale was fictitious. Readers would not have urgently sought the location of actual ongoing human sacrifices. If the account had been journalistic, readers would have demanded an immediate investigation rather than geographical details to satisfy academic curiosity.

Fabricated Follow-Ups

Tabloids and gossip columns fabricated follow-ups on The Lottery that reinforced the fictional nature of Jackson’s story. Made-up articles claimed Jackson had discovered the lottery village or that a similar practice was uncovered elsewhere. Such fake news treated the story as invented fiction rather than reporting. The follow-up hoaxes relied on the understanding that Jackson’s original tale was imaginary.

Setting Vagueness

Jackson’s vague setting also indicates The Lottery is not based on a real place. She simply describes “a village” with no identifying details. This anonimity implies fabrication. If Jackson had exposed an actual town’s practices, she would have needed to fully identify the location to address the scandal. Instead she sets the ritual murder in an imaginary setting much like conventional horror fiction. The opaque context defies connection to genuine events.

Scholarly Analysis Affirms Fictional Status

Decades of critical analysis by literary experts confirm Shirley Jackson invented The Lottery rather than basing it on obscure folk rituals or specific communities. Scholars highlight the universal rather than localized nature of the tale. Jackson’s interest was not ethnographic documentation but rather commenting on human nature.

Universal Theme of Conformity

Scholars focus on the story’s universal theme of dangerous conformity rather than any particular setting. Literary critic Neil Barron stressed that “Jackson not only skillfully created an atmosphere of casual normality, she also left the location entirely general.” The bland village represents human tendencies toward groupthink, not any actual locale. Like classic parables, the story derives power from relatable universal meanings rather than distinct settings or cultures.

Hyperbolic Imagery

Critics highlight Jackson’s hyperbolic fictional imagery calculated to disturb readers. Literary scholar S.T. Joshi described the “ritual murder” as an “outlandish premise” purposefully evoked to shock audiences. Joshi notes the “hyperbolic” content as evidence that “Jackson employed the most basic and primal ideas and images to pierce through the comfortable insulation of civilized modern life.” The extreme violence exists for allegorical impact, not as a factual report.

Ideological Critique

Rather than recounting a specific ritual, most scholars view The Lottery as social commentary on broader human frailties. Critic Angela Hague argues Jackson “portrays the inherent dangers of tradition for tradition’s sake” rather than any particular community’s actions. Anthropologist William A. Lessa claimed the story exhibits how “[s]ocial control arises and is maintained” more broadly, not just in a fictional village. Jackson’s interest is in exposing larger human vulnerabilities to conformity through an invented shocking tale.

The widespread critical approach of examining universal themes in The Lottery demonstrates that the story is understood as complete fiction. Scholars analyze the fabricated narrative for allegorical meaning rather than investigating it as a documentary account. For most literary analysts, the fictional nature of ritual murder in Jackson’s tale is taken for granted. Their interpretive focus confirms the story’s fictionality.

Shirley Jackson’s Writing Process

Analyzing Shirley Jackson’s general writing methods provides further evidence that The Lottery was pure invention. Jackson crafted disturbing short fiction rather than reporting on real horrors. Despite the realistic tone of her work, all sources indicate she fabricated shocking plots.

Pioneering Gothic Horror

Literary scholars describe Jackson as a pioneer of contemporary Gothic horror fiction. Reviewer E.B. White noted that “Miss Jackson writes not with a pointer or a club, but with a needle.” Her quiet, creepy stories brought horror into mundane domestic settings. She relied on imaginary shocking events rather than chronicling real life horrors. This pioneering horrific tone depended on fictional narratives to disturb audiences, not retellings of actual occurrences.

No Investigative Reporting

Unlike investigative reporters, Jackson invented plot details rather than uncovering real scandals or rituals. She generated story ideas from her imagination and wide reading rather than researching or documenting existing practices. Biographer Judy Oppenheimer observed that “[i]n her work the supernatural was a given… everything started in her imagination.” Jackson crafted fiction skillfully styled to seem realistic, not factual exposes.

Altered Newspaper Contest Stories

Early in her career, Jackson entered newspaper writing contests that required fictional submissions. She would take factual news items from papers and twist them into macabre stories. This technique of morphing real reportage into invented horror tales became foundational. Even tales without direct newspaper origins relied on imagined distortion of ordinary details just as her contest entries had fabricated shocking twists on brief news items.

No Claim of Truth

Jackson never claimed The Lottery described a real village or actual practices. In a 1960 lecture she explained, “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 inhumanity in their own lives.” The “my own village” reference highlights the imagined nature, since Jackson lived in Vermont not the fictional locale. She purposefully invented an allegory, not a supposedly factual chronicle.

Public Disclaimers

On multiple occasions, Jackson stated publicly that The Lottery was entirely invented. In a radio interview soon after the story’s publication she explained, “The Lottery…is purely fiction, not anything I learned through folklore…I just thought up the idea one day.” To another interviewer she reiterated “The Lottery is just a story I made up.” Jackson directly clarified the fictional nature of the narrative.


Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story The Lottery is rightly considered a landmark of American fiction. The tale of an annual small town lottery leading to ritualistic murder sparked controversy and commentary. However, the story is not based on any actual event or custom. Jackson drew inspiration from history and anthropology but invented a fully fictional narrative. Her interest lay in using horror to reveal the darker aspects of human psychology, not investigating or exposing any real village’s practices. Literary scholars analyzing the tale routinely treat the central premise as fabricated for allegorical purposes. Biographical sources confirm Jackson’s authorial tendency was to generate shocking fiction, not report on horrors. In her own words, The Lottery was “just a story I made up”. While realistic and thought-provoking, the story describes an imaginary ritual rather than a real one. The elements are universal rather than culturally specific. Though briefly taken literally by some early readers, Jackson’s literary skill in crafting fiction is confirmed by the continued prominence and mythical power The Lottery retains generations later. It remains a testament to imaginative writing triumphing through inventive horror over mundane reality.