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Is the lottery by Shirley Jackson Real?

The lottery is a famous short story written by Shirley Jackson that was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. The story describes a fictional small town in contemporary America which holds an annual lottery each summer in which every citizen must participate. A lottery is held to select one person in the town who will be stoned to death by the townspeople. The story explores themes of tradition, ritual, superstition, and the potential for dangerous groupthink in small towns.

While Shirley Jackson’s lottery is a work of fiction, it has parallels to some real-world phenomena and prompts questions about whether similar practices could exist or have existed elsewhere. This article will explore the factual basis behind Shirley Jackson’s fictional lottery and analyze whether such an event could ever occur in real life.

Is Jackson’s fictional lottery based on any real events?

Shirley Jackson never publicly claimed that her story was based on any real-world events or practices. The lottery appears to be solely a work of Jackson’s imagination. However, there are some historical precedents and parallels that may have inspired aspects of this fictional tale.

Some literary analysts note parallels between Jackson’s lottery and ancient traditions of human sacrifice among pagan cultures. Ritualistic killings or offerings made to gods and deities were relatively common in early societies across the world, including in ancient Greece, Mesoamerica, and some Nordic cultures. Jackson’s story mirrors how citizens perform a ritualistic killing under the justification of a community tradition and belief system.

The orderly, systematic way the fictional lottery is conducted also mirrors how Nazis coldly and bureaucratically managed the Holocaust. While on a much larger scale, both events feature collective killings deemed “necessary” by those in power under a legitimizing ideology. The complicity of average citizens is central to each.

Jackson’s rendering of small-town groupthink also has parallels to the persecutory mentality and conformism underlying the 17th century Salem witch trials. This suggests how even close-knit towns are vulnerable to deadly group contagion and hysteria if dangerous traditions or beliefs take hold.

However, there are no recorded real-world cases of an annual lottery exactly like Jackson’s story existing. The details of the setting, characters, and ritual procedures are entirely fictional. But Jackson seems to have drawn inspiration from various historical precedents of sanctioned group violence and mob hysteria.

Could a real-life lottery like Jackson’s ever occur?

While Shirley Jackson’s depiction is fictional, could an actual community carry out a similar sacrificial lottery ritual? Several factors suggest it is highly unlikely anything on this scale could occur today:

  • Legal deterrents – Laws strictly prohibit ritualistic killings and would swiftly punish such acts.
  • Individualism – Modern society values the individual over the collective.
  • Scientific worldview – Evidence-based reasoning discourages superstition and ritual.
  • Media exposure – It would be virtually impossible to hide such an event given today’s connected world.
  • Low social cohesion – Small towns are less socially cohesive and bound by tradition.

The combination of legal consequences, pervasive information, and modern values make it difficult for a community to carry out a deadly ritual sacrifice lottery without outside intervention. And if a town did attempt it, authorities would certainly intervene immediately when learning of the plans.

However, while a real-life lottery would be stopped quickly today, several factors made Jackson’s fictional scenario more plausible in its mid 20th century setting:

– Less national connection – Small towns were more isolated and self-governing.

– Tradition and ritual – Community traditions carried more weight.

– Power of authority – Citizens were more obedient to authorities like the lottery leader.

– Groupthink – Small town groupthink could override individual conscience.

So while permitted killings are no longer plausible, the themes of Jackson’s lottery may still resonate in certain societies. The general lesson is to guard against dangerous conformity and blind obedience to questionable traditions – tendencies which enabled historical atrocities. Vigilance is required even when events seem ‘unthinkable.’

Does the Lottery Exist in Other Fiction?

Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” sparked widespread interest in the concept of a deadly lottery ritual. Since its publication, various other authors have incorporated similar ideas in their fictional works across different mediums. Some examples include:


  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – This young adult book series (and movie franchise) features a government-mandated lottery in which two children are chosen each year to compete in a televised fight to the death. The themes of authoritarian control, ritual sacrifice, and suffering for entertainment in Collins’ fictional society reflect some of the same concepts as Jackson’s lottery.
  • Running Man by Stephen King – In this dystopian horror novel, a gameshow selects desperate contestants at random to try surviving being hunted for entertainment. The arbitrary lottery selection and themes of human life sacrificed for viewership parallel some of the senseless brutality in Jackson’s story.

Television and Movies

  • The Lottery (1996 TV) – This television adaptation of Jackson’s original short story closely follows the plot and themes of the literary version. It brings the fictional lottery ritual to life on screen.
  • The Purge series – These dystopian action horror films are premised around an annual event known as The Purge when all crimes become legal for a 12-hour period. While not exactly a lottery, there are parallels to Jackson’s story in the systematic and permitted acts of large scale violence during this ritualistic annual event.

Other Media and Pop Culture

References to Jackson’s lottery concept are scattered across many pop culture contexts, including:

  • Music – The music video for the 2017 Marilyn Manson song “Say10” directly references The Lottery.
  • TV – An episode of The Simpsons featured a scene parodying The Lottery.
  • Literature – Referenced in various other stories as a metaphor for collective conformity and complicity with systems of oppression.

So while no actual known cases exist, Shirley Jackson’s concept of a ritualized deadly lottery continues to influence and appear as a theme across fictional works nearly 75 years later. The story’s powerful themes still resonate and spark new creative expressions.

Historical Context Behind Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

To better understand Shirley Jackson’s fictional portrayal of a sacrificial lottery ritual, it helps to examine the historical context in which she wrote the story in 1948 America. Several key factors likely shaped the setting and themes:

Small Town America

Jackson emphasized the story’s small town setting as typical of many American communities at the time. The close-knit nature of such towns resulted in conformity which enables traditions like the lottery to persist unquestioned for generations.

Year US Population in Small Towns
1940 43.5 million
1950 50 million

Small town populations were still very substantial in the mid 20th century United States which gave plausibility to Jackson’s setting.

Post-War America

Jackson wrote the story just a few years after the end of World War II which had created renewed interest in themes of authoritarianism, scapegoating, and sanctioned violence against individuals – themes mirrored in the actions of the townspeople carrying out the lottery.

Rise of Interest in Folklore and Anthropology

The late 1940s saw increased mainstream attention in America given to topics like mythology, rituals, spiritualism and occult phenomena. This aligned with Jackson’s focus on a ritual event tied to spiritual beliefs.


The build out of suburbs was accelerating, fueling a growing sense of social atomization. Jackson’s themes of individual complicity and inability to resist harmful traditions spoke to some aspects of this new suburban dynamic.

So while fictional, parallels existed between Jackson’s setting and some social patterns in 1940s America that help explain the resonance of the story. The conformity, isolationism and groupthink of small towns provided a plausible backdrop for The Lottery ritual to persist.

Analysis of Key Themes in The Lottery

Shirley Jackson’s depiction of a deadly small-town lottery ritual contains several important themes and social commentaries that help explain its lasting fame and impact:

The Danger of Blind Conformity

The townspeople’s unwillingness to challenge, question or even discuss the ritual highlights the danger of blind conformity. Their thoughtless participation in something so clearly immoral underscores the power of social pressure for conformity.

The Evil of “Othering”

The way the victim is demonized as the “other” demonstrates the process of dehumanization that enables horrific acts against individuals. Outsider scapegoating is shown as a disturbing facet of human psychology.

The Tyranny of Tradition

The story illustrates how mere “tradition” can be used as justification for clearly unethical acts. Customs persevering due to inertia alone can subjugate moral reasoning.

The Loss of Empathy in Groups

The collective mentality of the mob results in loss of individual empathy and conscience. The story illustrates the capacity for cruelty in groups acting under a perceived authority.

The Facade of Civility

Jackson depicts how even “normal” people can subscribe to barbaric practices behind a facade of civility, domesticity and community. This underscores the human capacity for evil.

These powerful themes help explain the lasting relevance of Jackson’s unnerving lottery tale for understanding human social psychology and tendencies. The story serves as an enduring warning about the dangers of unchecked conformity.

Lottery Rules and Traditions in The Lottery

The lottery depicted in Shirley Jackson’s story follows a very specific set of ritualistic rules and traditions that have been in place for generations. Understanding the procedures described helps reveal the degree of unchecked conformity underpinning this deadly event:

Date and Time

– Takes place on June 27th at 10 AM each year

– Date is tradition and is not subject to change

The Lottery Box

– Box used is aged and splintering

– Some remember it being made from pieces of another, older box

– Is stored in a safe place between lotteries

Lottery Conduct

– Head of each household draws a paper slip from the box

– Bill Hutchinson gets the marked slip meaning his family has been chosen

– Each Hutchinson family member draws again to select individual victim


– Villagers grab stones stored nearby to execute the victim

– Even young children participate

– No retribution for the stoning murder

The codified nature shows how routinized the lottery has become. The rules perpetuate the unjust tradition through a veneer of orderly process.

Lottery Victim Selection Process

A key aspect of Shirley Jackson’s fictional lottery is how the annual victim is chosen. The multi-layered lottery draw process is detailed in the story:

  1. At 10 AM all villagers gather in the town square for the lottery
  2. The lottery box containing paper slips is placed before the townspeople
  3. Heads of household take turns drawing slips
  4. Bill Hutchinson draws the marked slip announcing his family has been chosen
  5. Hutchinson family members each draw a slip from the box
  6. Daughter Tessie Hutchinson draws the paper with the black spot meaning she is the victim

Some key points about the selection process:

  • Completely random chance determines the victim
  • The arbitrariness makes it seem less premeditated
  • Group complicity since each head of household participate
  • The layered drawing creates a dramatic build-up

This personaization of the random victim makes the killing more unsettling and heightens its senselessness. The selection ritual masks the underlying brutality.

Reactions to The Lottery Over Time

Shirley Jackson’s 1948 publication of her short story The Lottery generated intense reactions that have continued for decades. Over time, analysis of the public response has revealed several phases:

Initial Outrage and Censorship Attempts

– The story generated hundreds of letters accusing Jackson of graphic sensationalism.

– Many readers canceled New Yorker subscriptions in protest.

– Some libraries and schools sought to ban the upsetting story entirely.

Critical Reappraisal

– By the 1950s and 60s, critics began recognizing the story as a meaningful commentary on human psychology.

– It is now widely studied as a classic work of 20th century American fiction.

Feminist Analysis

– Feminist scholars highlight Mrs. Hutchinson as a female rebelling against an oppressive patriarchal ritual.

Allegorical Interpretations

– Some analysts interpret the story as an allegory for persecution against marginalized groups or societies stuck in traditions.

Pop Culture Status

– The story remains widely referenced in TV, music and movies over 75 years later.

– It persists as a touchstone for themes of conformity and ritualized violence.

So while controversial in its day, changing social views have cemented The Lottery as an iconic cautionary tale about dangerous group behavior. Its themes still resonate decades later.


In exploring the question “Is Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery real?”, we find that while purely fictional, the story contains themes and commentaries with roots in some historical precedents. The conformist pressures and ritualized violence depicted likely drew inspiration from aspects of small town American life and social psychology which Jackson observed in the late 1940s milieu. We also find that while an actual deadly lottery is highly implausible today, variations on the concept persist in modern popular culture showing its lasting impact. By examining the story in historical context and analyzing its key themes, rituals, reactions and adaptations over time, we gain insight into why this unsettling short story remains so compelling and relevant nearly 75 years later. While utterly imaginary, Shirley Jackson’s rendering of a sacrificial lottery ritual continues to highlight universal truths about human nature and our susceptibility to groupthink which make The Lottery timeless.