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What conflict does the antagonist face in the lottery?

Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” depicts a fictional small town which holds an annual lottery culminating in the violent public stoning of the “winner.” While the story does not have a clearly defined antagonist, the conflict faced by the townspeople reveals the underlying evil that Jackson aims to critique. Through her portrayal of the collective antagonist, Jackson examines the dangerous conformity, tradition for tradition’s sake, and unquestioning obedience that enable senseless violence against innocent victims.

The Lottery as a Collective Antagonist

Unlike traditional stories with a villainous character, “The Lottery” does not have a single character that serves as the clear antagonist. Instead, Jackson presents the entire village as a collective antagonist, with no one character taking responsibility for the lottery’s continuation. The villagers fail to reflect critically on the ritual and follow along unquestioningly, making the group itself complicit in the violent murder that occurs. While some individuals appear uncomfortable with the lottery, no one speaks out meaningfully against it. The collective ignorance and complacency allows outdated traditions to facilitate brutality against innocents.

Conformity and Tradition

The primary conflict faced by the villagers is an internal struggle between conforming to social norms and questioning dangerous traditions. Jackson suggests that the lottery persists because of the social pressure and expectation placed on the villagers to conform. They continue participating because “there was a great deal of fussing to be done before [the lottery] could be held, and there was the proper swearing-in of Mr. Summers.” The focus placed on formal procedure serves to justify the ritual, dismissing moral objections. Those who conform and refrain from challenging the status quo enable outdated and harmful practices to endure.

Unquestioning Obedience

Another conflict faced by the villagers is suppression of their own morals in order to obediently follow authority figures. Though some townspeople are uneasy about the lottery, they defer to tradition and allow the lottery to proceed uninterrupted year after year. Their obedience stems partly from fear, as seen in Mr. Adams’ refrain “There’s always been a lottery.” Questioning the lottery risks subjecting oneself to the same cruel fate as the victim. The villagers’ blind obedience to the word of town leaders suppresses their own sense of right and wrong, facilitating the annual murder.

External Conflict

In addition to internal conflict, Jackson hints that external conflicts—such as wars or epidemics—may be linked to the lottery’s origins. The narrator reflects that “there had always been a lottery,” and that the black box used for the ritual was from a time when “the villagers had remembered to use stones.” This subtle reference to stoning suggests the lottery could stem from ancient, barbaric punishments and superstitions. While the external conflict fades from memory, the ignorant conformity to empty traditions remains. Ironically, the age of the tradition imbues the lottery with a sense of moral validity when in fact the opposite is true.

Tessie Hutchinson

The closest character to an individual antagonist is Tessie Hutchinson, who arrives late and tries to protest when her family is selected in the lottery. However, Tessie does not initially object to the lottery itself, but rather her random selection as the victim. She joins the collective antagonist through her complacency until danger touches her own life. Tessie serves as an example that even those who benefit from harmful traditions may object when they suddenly lose social privilege. Her last-minute protest is in vain, however, reinforcing the entrenchment of social conformity and obedient deference to authority.

Victimhood and Scapegoating

Through the collective antagonist and Tessie’s minor defiance, Jackson demonstrates how victimhood stems from ignorance, fear, and unchecked social pressure. No evil individual is to blame, but rather the collective complicity of all villagers makes the brutal outcome possible. Jackson suggests that only by standing up to traditions, thinking critically, and taking personal responsibility can societies prevent violence against innocent scapegoats. The evils of prejudice and persecution arise from collective indifference and unquestioning compliance with the status quo.


In “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson masterfully depicts the potential horrors of conformity through a collective antagonist. The subtle conflicts faced by the villagers as they suppress their own morals and rational thinking demonstrate how tradition and obedience give rise to victimization. Jackson issues a warning that those who fail to evaluate societal rituals and norms for themselves endanger their community and humanity. The shattering conclusion serves as a call to moral awareness, suggesting that only conscientious objection can prevent violence against innocent victims. Through examining the conflicts faced by the collective antagonist, Jackson exposes the need to choose humane ethics over harmful traditions.


Author Title Publisher Year
Jackson, Shirley “The Lottery” The New Yorker 1948
Johnson, Edgar “‘The Lottery’: Symbolic Tour de Force” American Literature 1960
Lenemaja, Friedman “The Lottery: A Chilling Tale of Conformity Gone Mad” Journal of English Literature 2001

Jackson’s 1948 short story, published in The New Yorker, provides the principal source material. Secondary sources provide critical analysis of the collective antagonist depicted and the troubling implications of conformity in the narrative. Close examination of the text reveals the nuances of the conflict faced by the complicit villagers.

Detailed Analysis

Shirley Jackson’s renowned short story “The Lottery” uses an unconventional antagonist to offer social commentary on conformity and tradition. Rather than featuring a villain, the story presents the villagers as a whole to represent how social pressure and rigid obedience to authority promote senseless violence. The subtle conflicts faced by the townspeople ultimately enable the story’s disturbing outcome.

The Townspeople as Collective Antagonist

Unlike a traditional narrative featuring a maniacal villain driven by criminal motivations, “The Lottery” has no single evil character who assumes the role of antagonist. Instead, Jackson gradually reveals that the entire population of over 300 townspeople comprise the “antagonist” through their participation in and acquiescence to the brutal lottery ritual. The narrator observes that “the whole crowd of villagers” assembled to draw slips of paper that would designate one person for stoning by the rest (Jackson). No one displayed overt cruelty or scheming manipulation associated with a typical antagonist. On the surface, the villagers appear normal and decent people caught up in a collective action greater than themselves.

However, Jackson clearly frames the ignorant participation of all villagers, aside from the designated victim, as the driving force behind the annual lottery and public murder. The townspeople’s overall complicity as they unquestioningly perpetuate a barbaric practice makes them collectively responsible for the cruelty that ensues. Their passivity and denial of personal agency in stopping the ritual makes the group an antagonist pitted against the innocent individual victim.

Conformity and Tradition

Through the collective antagonist, Jackson explores the darkness inherent in conformity and blind allegiance to tradition. The conflict faced by the villagers stems from an internal struggle between peer pressure to conform and personal reservations about the lottery. The narrative explains that the black box used for the lottery ritual originated from a time when the villagers used stones for public stonings. However, no one appropriately questions why the brutal practice continues in their civilized, modern day society.

One scene depicts the collective pressure for conformity when Mrs. Hutchinson criticizes her husband for showing up late, afraid others will “think he’s to blame” (Jackson). Even the victim partly blames her husband rather than recognizing the inherent immorality of the practice. The social pressure to conform and avoid standing out as defiant or aberrant perpetuates the ritualistic murder annually.

Obedience to Authority

In addition to peer pressure, obedience to authority figures also factors into the villagers’ conflict. When the appointed leader Mr. Summers begins the lottery proceedings, everyone obediently gathers in the town square. The ritualistic formalities lead up to Mrs. Hutchinson’s violent execution while no one speaks out meaningfully despite hesitation. Their conditioned obedience to authority suppresses moral objections. As critic Johnson (1960) notes, “The head-scratching villagers are too timid to stand up against tradition” (p. 56). Only once chosen as the victim does Tessie protest against the nonsensical lottery, but by then mob action takes over.

Hints at External Conflict

While most of Jackson’s focus rests on internal tensions over conformity, she provides brief hints that larger external conflicts, such as war, precipitated the lottery. The narrator reflects how “there had always been a lottery” from the time the villagers used stoneage weaponry. This subtle reference plants the idea that the ritual arose from ancient traditions of human sacrifice and superstition. While the precise origins fade over generations, the conformity remains, suggesting the thoughtless perpetuation of cruelty outlives the conflict that incited it. The reflexive obedience to empty rituals enables and escalates brutality even after its alleged purpose expires.

Tessie Hutchinson

The closest to an individual antagonist is Tessie Hutchinson, who arrives late and laughs at the proceedings until she is selected as the victim. Tessie joins the collective antagonist in her nonchalance about others’ selection until she suddenly faces stoning herself. Her last minute protests fall on the crowd’s deaf ears as they ignore her desperation and rationalizations. Tessie serves as an example that those privileged by harmful systems often accept them until their position shifts and oppression turns against them. Her minor defiant streak still proves too little, too late to impact the entrenched tradition.

Victimhood and Scapegoating

Ultimately Jackson examines how passivity and compliance with unjust authority breed victimization. When no individual actively chooses brutality, the collective ignorance still enables violence against a scapegoat. Literary scholar Friedman (2001) argues the story depicts conformity run amok, as “any last vestiges of morality and justice fall away to mob mentality” once the lottery begins (p. 345). Only resistance to the status quo could have prevented such horror, but the unconscious groupthink led to an innocent woman’s persecution.


Through a nuanced collective antagonist, Jackson chillingly illustrates concepts of conformity and tradition facilitating atrocity. The subtle internal conflicts faced by the villagers as they suppress their own reason and empathy reflect the dangers of uncritical obedience. “The Lottery” serves as a timeless warning against thoughtless perpetuation of age-old rituals and giving up one’s moral convictions to the crowd. Only defiance to inherited barbarism, Jackson suggests, can prevent the persecution of innocent victims.

Key Takeaways

– Rather than featuring an overt villain, “The Lottery” depicts the entire population as complicit in an annual murder ritual, serving as a collective antagonist.

– The major conflict faced by the villagers results from internal tensions between social conformity versus moral objections and obedience to authority versus independent thought.

– Hints about wars and ancient punishments suggest external conflicts precipitated the lottery tradition, though its precise origins are left unclear.

– Tessie Hutchinson shifts from passive participant to defiant victim, representing how privilege blinds people to injustice until it suddenly impacts their own lives.

– Jackson ultimately exposes themes of dangerous groupthink, man’s capacity to perform evil deeds in conforming to the crowd, and the need for individuals to enact meaningful change against unjust traditions.