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What is the theme and the purpose of the writing of The Lottery?

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery is a haunting tale that explores themes of tradition, ritual, conformity, and the dangers of blindly following conventions without reflection or analysis. First published in The New Yorker in 1948, the story generated more reader response than any other piece in the magazine’s history. Most readers were horrified by the story’s surprising conclusion, in which a small town stones one of its residents to death in an annual ritual known as “the lottery.”

In just a few pages, Jackson raises important questions about the individual’s relationship to society and the wisdom of unexamined traditions. The story forces readers to ask themselves what traditions and beliefs they cling to without questioning why. It suggests that clinging blindly to traditions, simply because “that’s the way things have always been done,” can lead to shocking cruelties and a lack of compassion for our fellow human beings.

Summary of The Lottery

The Lottery takes place in a small, agrarian town in contemporary America. On June 27th of each year, the residents gather in the town square for the annual lottery. The lottery is conducted in a business-like, impersonal manner by Mr. Summers, who also coordinates other civic activities like square dances. It seems like an ordinary civic event, but there are hints early on that something more sinister is afoot. People keep their distance from the stool holding the black box used for the lottery, for example, and some even appear nervous.

The lottery uses an archaic ritual of scraping paper slips out of a black box to randomize selections. Once all the slips are distributed to the heads of households, the drawing begins to see who will be chosen. It soon becomes clear that no one wants to win the lottery. The Hutchinson family draws the fateful slip of paper, and mother Tessie Hutchinson protests the unfairness of the draw. However, her pleas fall on deaf ears and she is stoned to death by the villagers, including her own family members.

The story concludes by emphasizing the ordinary, even festive, mood of the villagers after the stoning. They joke and chat amiably, making plans for the next lottery as they head home for lunch, leaving Tessie’s body behind.

Major Themes

Dangers of Tradition and Ritual

Jackson suggests that there can be dangers in tradition and rituals when people follow them blindly without questioning their origins and purposes. The villagers don’t even remember the original purpose of the lottery, but they continue to follow tradition faithfully because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” This leads them to commit morally reprehensible acts against their neighbors and friends. The story warns readers about the dangers of mindless ritual and tradition. If we never reflect on why we follow certain traditions, we risk hurting others and behaving in unethical ways.


The perils of blind conformity are closely linked to the theme of dangerous tradition. Even though some villagers are uneasy about the lottery, they don’t dare speak out against it because it’s what the group has always done. They conform, unwilling to risk social repercussions by questioning established practices. Conformity and peer pressure lead people to commit morally ambiguous acts that they would avoid if they listened to their own consciences.

Mob Mentality vs. Individual Reason

The hive-mind mentality of the mob overrides moral reasoning in individuals. Separately, the villagers are not cruel people, yet collectively they stone an innocent woman to death through the ritual of the lottery. Not only does no one speak out against the injustice, but even Tessie’s close friends and family members turn against her in the end. This mob rule demonstrates how everyday people can perpetrate atrocities if they abandon reason and compassion.

The Randomness of Persecution

Another key theme is the idea that persecution and suffering can occur at random for no rational reason. Tessie’s death is completely random – the slip with the black mark just happened to be in her hand. This emphasizes the arbitrariness of persecution in society, whether due to scapegoating, prejudices, or adherence to dangerous traditions. Tessie’s random selection reminds readers not to blame individuals for their suffering, which could happen to anyone through little fault of their own.

Detachment and Apathy in the Face of Evil

The casual, detached tone with which the villagers carry out the lottery and killing indicates how performing terrible acts can become normalized. Their apathy underscores how otherwise normal people can grow desensitized to evil and cruelty over time. Instead of opposing such rites, the villagers accept them as routine parts of life. Their blithe detachment demonstrates the insidious danger of passive acceptance of harm against others.


The Lottery uses several key symbols to reinforce its themes:

The Black Box

The shabby black box represents the ritual/tradition of the lottery itself. Like the box, the tradition is worn, faded, and splintered, yet the villagers cling to it irrationally. No one remembers its origins or purpose, yet they continue using the box simply because they always have. Just as the box comes to represent meaningless adherence to tradition, the lottery becomes an empty, destructive ritual divested of meaning or purpose.


The stones the villagers use to execute Tessie represent the stagnant thinking of individuals who persecute others out of ignorance. Just as stones are lifeless, heavy, and opaque, the villagers’ thinking has grown hard and impervious to light, reason, or change. The image of stones piling up on Tessie evokes how stagnant traditions and mindsets accumulate over generations, leading to harm.


The names Jackson selects for her characters carry symbolism. “Tessie” sounds similar to “testify,” suggesting Tessie’s status as a martyr or scapegoat. “Hutchinson” evokes the word “hutch,” tying Tessie to the idea of being trapped or persecuted. The ordinary names like Bill, Harry, and Mr. Martin give the villagers a generic quality, underscoring how average people can perpetrate evil.

Purpose and Meaning

Jackson’s fiction frequently focused on the darkness lurking beneath the surface of small-town life. In The Lottery and much of her other work, she explores how evil exists latent in everyone, waiting to emerge given the wrong circumstances. The story warns readers against the dangers of passively accepting harm and adhering blindly to groupthink. It highlights the need to question traditions and rituals instead of performing them unreflectively.

While the story contains elements of horror and thriller fiction, its deeper purpose is to provide social commentary and cautionary warning. The Lottery raises questions about sheep mentality versus independent critical thinking. It examines how any random person could potentially be persecuted by society at large or by smaller social groups. The story also suggests examining one’s own participation in rituals and traditions to reflect on their true purpose. Even if a practice seems normal because “we’ve always done things that way,” Jackson warns, it may be hiding darker components.

Some literary critics have interpreted The Lottery as a metaphor for larger social issues such as slavery or the Holocaust—extreme examples of what happens when ritualization and victimization of people become normalized. The story reminds society not to repeat its mistakes by blindly accepting inhumane customs as “tradition.” It suggests that only by challenging conventional thinking can we avoid perpetrating more violence in the future.

While shocking in its violent conclusion, The Lottery conveys a powerful message about examining cultural rituals and traditions for hidden cruelty or meaninglessness. By shocking readers out of complacency, Jackson reminds us not to take our customs for granted or perform them without reflection. This lasting social commentary and warning about human behavior continue to make The Lottery relevant decades after its publication.

Critical Analysis

Use of Irony

Jackson employs irony throughout the story to highlight the ritual’s senselessness. It’s ironic that such a violent, disturbing event takes place amid picturesque small-town life where no one locks their doors. The juxtaposition of evil and “normalcy” makes the horror more shocking. The fact that the villagers don’t even remember the lottery’s purpose but keep practicing it anyway is bitterly ironic. Their blind adherence to tradition underscores the irony of the lottery itself having become meaningless. Jackson also establishes irony through contrasts: the beautiful day vs. the vicious actions, the collective brutality vs. individuals’ unwillingness to rock the boat, and the tension between personal misgivings and public conformity.

Ambiguous Setting

The village is never named, and Jackson offers few concrete details about the setting. This ambiguous setting makes the story feel universal. Lacking grounding in a specific time and place, the lottery could represent any close-knit community. This universality emphasizes how such unquestioning rituals can occur anywhere when people don’t analyze their traditions. Leaving the setting intentionally vague also heightens the story’s sense of mystery.


Jackson drops many small hints that foreshadow the lottery’s sinister nature. The villagers standing apart from the black box, the pile of stones nearby, young boys gathering stones early in the day, parents scolding children who start collecting rocks prematurely—all of these details subtly intimate that something is amiss. Tessie’s arrival just before the lottery also foreshadows her fate, since those who arrive late get unfavorable spots at the front. These examples build a sense of unease and expectancy in readers.

Sudden Violent Ending

The ending, in which the villagers violently stone Tessie without warning, shocks readers who have been lulled into a false sense of familiarity with this quaint small-town setting. The abrupt brutal conclusion forcefully drives home Jackson’s warning about unexamined traditions leading to evil. By not glossing over the violence, Jackson forces readers to confront the realities of scapegoating and persecution born out of groupthink.

Detached Narration

Jackson’s detached, understated narration helps heighten the horror. The deadpan delivery contrasts harshly with the story’s violence. By describing the stoning so matter-of-factly, the narration creates irony and discomfort. The juxtaposition makes the evil feel mundane, underscoring how easily moral decency can be abandoned. Had Jackson used a more outraged narrator, the story might feel melodramatic or overwrought. The detached tone implicates all readers in the villagers’ violence, suggesting we all contain apathy regarding societal cruelties.


The villagers are painted in general strokes, lacking major dimension or individuality. Their generic quality emphasizes that this persecution could happen anywhere among “average” people. Tessie’s transition from laughing spectator to desperate victim underlines the randomness of persecution. However, even Tessie doesn’t protest the ritual itself, highlighting how deeply its roots penetrate the social consciousness. Readers are implicated in Tessie’s death because we relate to ordinary villagers, not evil outliers. No one transcends the herd mentality.

Questions Left Unanswered

Jackson declines to explain key details about the lottery, such as its exact purpose or origins. This lack of exposition adds to the evil’s banality; the villagers don’t even remember the reasons behind the rite. Leaving it unexplained also universalizes the story—the lottery could represent any pointless tradition people follow robotically. Jackson implies these details are irrelevant; the horror is that the ritual continues blindly without purpose, so any specific explanation is unnecessary.

Comparison to Other Works

Similarities to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

– Both stories portray idyllic small towns hiding darkness beneath the surface.

– They demonstrate how people blindly accept evil traditions as the price for utopian perfection.

– Though the settings differ, the theme of complicity in accepting cruelty is very similar.

Similarities to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

– Annual lottery used to select sacrificial victim for a community ritual.

– Protagonist struggles to reconcile personal ethics with demands of corrupt collective ritual.

– Irony of innocent children murdering each other to uphold barbaric tradition.

– How easily traditions warp over time into empty brutality.

Differences from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

– O’Connor’s story focuses on personal transformation and religious themes about good/evil.

– The evil acts come from clearly villainous characters, not collective crowd actions.

– More overtly humorous, religious, and darkly comical tone versus Jackson’s muted detachment.

– The ending offers redemption for characters, unlike Jackson’s abrupt, meaningless slaughter.

Critical Reception

When it first appeared, The Lottery generated more responses than any story in The New Yorker’s history. Most readers were appalled but compelled. Some wanted to cancel their subscriptions and sent hate mail to Jackson. However, many also praised its bold commentary on human evil. Over time, critics have increasingly studied the story’s themes, symbolism, and social critique.

Early reviewers were shocked but recognized Jackson’s skilled storytelling. One wrote: “It is a curiosity of horrors that only a woman could perpetrate—a neat, bare, classic framework upon which she hangs little interested horrors… It is simply an ugly tale adroitly visualized” (New York Herald Tribune, 1948). Another called it “a piece of brilliant and horrid satire teasing at the sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness of familiar public attitudes toward less fortunate citizens” (Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1948).

Many early critics focused on the story as an allegory for persecutions, scapegoating, and cult behavior, connecting it to Nazism, Communism, and depersonalization of individuals. Later literary analysis shifted to focus more on gender roles and feminism. Some feminist scholars see the story as exposing patriarchal violence and masculine power dynamics in small town life.

Today The Lottery is viewed as a masterfully crafted, deeply unsettling allegory that exposes humankind’s capacity for evil and senseless violence when they adhere blindly to group think. It continues to be interpreted in light of current social and political issues regarding mass movements and moral relativism. The story remains widely taught and continues to be one of the most impactful short works in modern American literature.


Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is a timeless short story that packs a devastating punch. In just a few pages, she manages to raise unsettling questions about tradition, ritual, conformity, and persecutory tendencies in human nature when logic and decency get overridden by the mentality of the crowd. Her spare, unadorned writing style and detached narration help heighten the horror and invite all readers to see themselves reflected in the villagers who participate in evil.

While shocking and upsetting, the story provides valuable commentary on the need for skepticism about rituals and traditions, especially those that have lost their meaning over generations of use. Jackson warns against the dangers of blind conformity and silence in the face of injustice. By demonstrating how naturally persecution can arise from stagnant thinking and unquestioned traditions, The Lottery continues to relay a warning as relevant today as when it was first published. The story compels readers to re-examine their own lives and societies for latent cruelties and mindless rituals that may have evolved over eons into something dangerous. Its themes about humanity’s tendency to abuse power through groupthink remain disturbingly pertinent in the modern world. Thanks to its unflinching examination of human darkness through an unsettling allegorical tale, The Lottery stands out as a groundbreaking and impactful work of 20th century American fiction.