“The Lottery”: Characters, Setting, and Theme

“The Lottery” is a story of a town whose citizens are required to participate in an annual “lottery”. We soon find out, however, that unlike most lotteries, this is not a lottery that one hopes to win. With her ingenious use of setting, characters, themes, she creates a suspenseful and exciting tale that left me in awe when I finally put it down. The setting of Jackson’s story is a very deceptive one, and makes us, as readers, wonder where and when this story takes place.

She does not give a name to the town, nor the time of year it takes place, but what I found very odd was that she gives specific details about the exact day of the lottery. She tells us the date, June 27th, the time, around 10:00 a. m. , and the temperature, warm. She describes the scene exactly, showing that there are flowers blossoming and rich green grass growing, and how the town square, where everyone is gathered, is between the bank and the post office. She also provides details about the town, including how may people live there and how long the lottery takes (Jackson 1).

The combination of these precise details and the mystery of when and where this story takes place give a good sense of the scene, but also leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination thus enhancing the surprising end of the story (Cellania 4). Although it is not fairly clear who the main character of “The Lottery” is, we learn that Tessie Hutchinson ends up being the dynamic character of the story. When she arrives late to the lottery, admitting that she forgot what day it was, she immediately stands out from the other townsfolk as someone different.

The crowd must part for her to reach her family, whereas, the other women arrive at the square calmly and on time, standing next to their husbands. On a day when the townspeople’s main focus is the lottery, this lack of priority seems inappropriate, almost intolerable. This shows that she is somewhat of an individualist who is able to forget about the lottery entirely as she performed her chores. And this may be the reason why she was the only one who spoke up against the lottery (Cellania 2).

Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, had participated in seventy-seven lotteries and is a huge supporter for keeping things exactly the way they are. He dismisses the other towns and people who have stopped having lotteries as “crazy fools,” and he is threatened by the idea of change. He also believes in what seems to be an old wives’ tale, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (Jackson 5). He fears that if the lottery stops, the townspeople will be forced to eat “chickweed and acorns” (Jackson 5). This proves how strongly he believes in superstition, and how dangerous it is to follow tradition blindly.

One main theme I found very interesting was the randomness of persecution (Cellania 3). The townspeople persecute an individual at random, and the victim is guilty of nothing except having drawn the wrong slip of paper. Everybody has an equal chance to get chosen, even children. What brings chills down my spine is how quick and easy it is for the townspeople to turn against the victim. The very moment Tessie chooses the slip of paper, she is “marked” and loses her identity even from her own family. The death of Tessie is an extreme example, but I see this being parallel to our society to some extent.

A person can be “marked” because of something he or she has no control over, including sex, race, religion, economic class, appearance, and so forth (Cellania 3). There is also a danger of blindly following traditions (Garner I), and Jackson clearly points that out as another main theme in this story. It is safe to say that no one in the story knows of the conception of the lottery and everybody is afraid to break that tradition of having it. The townspeople’s blind acceptance of the lottery has allowed ritual murder to become part of their town fabric (Cellania 2).

No one is forcing them to keep things the same and nobody even stops to question whether the killing is right or wrong. Tradition is reason enough and it gives them all the justification they need. Even though “The Lottery” was a fairly short story, Shirley Jackson did not hesitate on the importance of the elements of literature. Her characters and the theme played an important role through my journey of suspense while her mysterious setting left much to my imagination. This is the first short story I have read from Shirley Jackson and she has me yearning for more.

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