and Plot Summary by Michael J. Cummings...©
Guide Revised and Enlarged in 2009
Lottery” is a short story in the horror genre. Critics generally consider
it one of the finest American short stories of the twentieth century.
Lottery" was published on June 26, 1948, in The New Yorker,
a literary magazine. Its shocking ending horrified readers, who deluged
the magazine with letters of complaint. Many readers cancelled their subscription
to the magazine. After the hubbub subsided, critics realized what an outstanding
short story it was. Today, the story appears in numerous anthologies for
high school and college students.
action takes place between 10 a.m. and noon on June 27, a sunny day, in
a New England village.
Bobby Martin: Boy
who loads his pockets with stones that he will use after townspeople draw
lottery numbers. He also helps build a pile of stones.
Baxter Martin: Older
brother of Bobby Martin.
Harry Jones: Boy
who joins Bobby Martin in building the pile of stones.
Boy who joins Bobby Martin and Harry Jones in building the pile of stones.
Mr. Martin: Bobby
Martin's father. He operates a grocery store.
Mrs. Martin: Wife
of Mr. Martin.
Joe Summers: Coal
dealer who conducts the lottery. He has no children.
Mr. Summers's Wife:
Mr. Graves: Postmaster.
He assists Mr. Summers.
Mrs. Graves: Wife
of the postmaster.
Man Warner: Oldest man in town.
Woman who arrives late for the lottery.
Husband of Mrs. Hutchinson.
Bill Jr., Nancy, Little
Dave: Children of Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson.
School Friends of Nancy
Eva: Daughter of
Bill and Tessie Hutchinson.
Don: Eva's husband.
Mrs. Delacroix: Mother
of Dickie Delacroix.
Mr. Delacroix: Husband
of Mrs. Delacroix.
Clyde Dunbar: Village
resident who broke his leg and cannot attend the lottery.
Janey Dunbar: Wife
of Clyde Dunbar. She draws for her husband.
Horace Dunbar: Son
of Clyde and Janey Dunbar. Being under sixteen, he is not old enough to
draw for his father.
Another Dunbar: Son
of Clyde and Janey Dunbar.
Jack Watson: Teenager
who draws for himself and his mother.
of the Watson boy.
Steve Adams: First
villager to draw from the lottery box.
Mrs. Adams: Wife
of Steve Adams.
Allen, Anderson, Bentham,
Clarak: Residents who draw after Steve Adams.
Harburt, Jones, Overdyke,
Percy, Zanini: Participants who draw next.
By Michael J. Cummings ©
of a New England village gather at 10 a.m. on June 27 in the square between
the post office and the bank for the annual lottery. A bright sun is shining
down on fragrant flowers and green lawns while the townspeople–more than
300 of them–await the arrival of Mr. Summers and the black wooden box from
which everyone is to draw a folded slip of paper. Adults chat while children
play a game in which they gather stones. Whoever draws the slip of paper
with the black dot on it will receive all of the lottery proceeds.
the years, the lottery rules and trappings remained the same except for
minor changes: Wood chips were replaced by the slips of paper, and ritual
chants and salutes preceding the drawing were eliminated. Other than those
modernizations, the same old rules prevailed year after year.
one in the square knows why or under what circumstances the lottery began.
All they know is that it is a tradition–a tradition that they are not willing
Mr. Summers shows up with the black box, he sets it down and prepares for
the drawing. A housewife, Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson, arrives late just then,
telling Mrs. Delacroix that she “Clean forgot what day it was” until she
noticed that her children had left her house and remembered it was the
day of the lottery.
of the townspeople draws a folded slip of paper but does not open it until
everyone has drawn. When the big moment arrives, it is Tessie Hutchinson
who has the paper with the black dot. Everyone then closes in on her, picks
up rocks–the “proceeds” of the lottery–and stones her to death.
reluctance of people to reject outdated traditions, ideas, rules, laws,
and practices. The villagers continue the lottery year after year because,
as one of the villagers would say, “We have always had a lottery as far
back as I can remember. I see no reason to end it.” Put another way, this
theme says: “We’ve always done it this way. Why change now?” In real life,
defenders of the status quo have used this philosophy down through the
ages and into the present day. For example, it was used in 1776 to retain
slavery even though the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all
men are created equal.” Until 1919, it was used to prevent women from voting.
Until the 1960's, it was used as an official public policy to allow racial
segregation. This philosophy continues to be used today to retain outmoded
practices, discriminatory practices, and sometimes dangerous practices.
These practices include the use of paper ballots in elections, the use
of nuclear weapons, capital punishment, abortion, anti-Semitism, racial
profiling, and denial of health benefits to the poor.
wrongfully designates scapegoats to bear the sins of the community.
According to some interpretations of “The Lottery,” Tessie Hutchinson is
stoned to death to appease forces desiring a sacrificial lamb offered in
atonement for the sins of others. The practice of using scapegoats dates
back to ancient times, when Jews ritually burdened a goat with the sins
of the people, then threw it over a cliff to rid the community of those
sins. Ancient Greeks performed a similar ritual with a human scapegoat,
although the scapegoat apparently did not die. In ancient Rome, an innocent
person could take on the sin of a guilty person, thus purifying the latter.
Early societies in Central and South America offered human sacrifices to
appease higher powers.
wickedness of ordinary people can be just as horrifying as the heinous
crime of a serial killer or a sadistic head of state. From time to
time, we are surprised to learn that the man, woman, or even child next
door–a quiet, unassuming postal worker, bank clerk, or student–has committed
offenses so outrageous that they make national news.
unexamined life is not worth living. The truth of this dictum of the
ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, becomes clear when the townspeople
refuse to examine their traditions and continue to take part in a barbaric
the crowd can have disastrous consequences. Although some townspeople
raise questions about the lottery, they all go along with it in the end.
Thus, they become unthinking members of a herd, forfeiting their individuality
and sending Tessie Hutchinson to her death.
List of Horrors
first-time readers of "The Lottery" tend to cite the ending, describing
the commencement of the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson, as the only disturbing
part of the story. But those who have studied the story know otherwise.
Consider, for example, the following:
After executing a woman by stoning,
the townspeople will go home to eat lunch or go back to work as if nothing
out of the ordinary has happened. The first paragraph says, "[T][he whole
lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the
morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home
for noon dinner." The tenth paragraph says, "Well, now," Mr. Summers said
soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can
go back to work."
The villagers do not excuse
children from the lottery. Even Nancy Hutchinson, 12, and her little brother,
Davy, must draw from the black box. If a child draws the slip of paper
with the black dot, he or she will be stoned.
Children take part in the stoning.
Little Davy is so small that he throws pebbles.
Nancy Hutchinson and her brother
Bill laugh when they draw blank lots. Only two people remain to draw, their
father and mother. How could Nancy and Bill laugh when they know that their
father or mother will draw the lot with the black spot and die?
Mr. Hutchinson pulls from his
wife's hand the slip of paper she has drawn--the losing lot--and holds
it up for all to see. He does not plead for his wife; he does not exhibit
any sympathy. Instead, he becomes one of the executioners.
Jackson foreshadows the ending when the children gather stones (second
Bobby Martin had
already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed
his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry
Jones and Dickie Delacroix . . . eventually made a great pile of stones
in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other
point of view is third person, detached and objective.
climax occurs at the end, when the villagers begin to stone Tessie Hutchinson.
Following are examples of
irony in the story:
and Portentous NamesThe lottery: (1) Barbaric
tradition or practice. In this category in former times were slavery and
human sacrifice practiced by the ancient Maya civilization that inhabitated
modern-day Mexico and other Central American countries. In modern times,
abortion, capital punisment, sadomasochism, cage-fighting, and dog-fighting
are in this category. (2) Any foolhardy tradition that a community refuses
to give up, such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. (3) Real-life
lotteries and other forms of gambling that devastate human beings. (4)
The risks of daily living, such as driving a car or flying on an airplane,
The word lottery suggests
that the villagers are going to draw for a prize.
The sunny day suggests that
a happy event is about to take place.
When Old Man Warner hears that
the north village is considering ending the lottery, he says, "Next thing
you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves." (The lottery
is as savage and barbaric a ritual as any practiced by cave dwellers.)
Black box: (1) Evil
or death, suggested by the color of the box. (2) Outdated tradition, suggested
by this sentence: "The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was
no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show
the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained."
Boys gathering stones
and pebbles: Indoctrination or brainwashing that is passed on from
one generation to the next.
Old Man Warner: Anyone
who warns others not to change; hidebound traditionalist; Luddite; obstructionist.
Mr. Summers: The
appearance of normalcy and cheerfulness hiding evil and corruption.
Bill and Davy Hutchinson:
Betrayers. The narrator says, "Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and
forced the slip of paper out of her hand. It had a black spot on it, the
black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil
in the coal company office. Bill Hutchinson held it up, and there was a
stir in the crowd." As for Davy, he has pebbles ready to throw at his mother.
Hutchinson was the name of an official who lodged a complaint against several
women in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.
Mr. Graves: Bringer
of death; any sinister influence. Graves helps Joe Summers prepare the
slips of paper that will send one of the residents to his or her grave.
Graves also brings the stool on which the black box rests.
Village: That which
appears normal and even benevolent but which harbors inner corruption and
Mrs. Delacroix: In
French, de means of and la croix means the cross.
Mrs. Delacroix, who treats Tessie Hutchinson cordially when the latter
arrives for the drawing, later picks up a huge stone to hurl at the condemned
woman. One may say that she "double-crosses" Tessie by helping to "crucify"
the Lottery Die Out?
story presents the possibility that the lottery is dying out. For example,
a passage in the seventh paragraph indicates that the villagers have already
permitted certain parts of the lottery ritual to lapse:
[A]t one time, some
people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by
the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been
rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the
lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed
that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago
this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had been, also,
a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing
each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed
with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak
to each person approaching.Later in the story Steve Adams
tells Old Man Warner "that over in the north village they're talking of
giving up the lottery." A moment later, Mrs. Adams says, "Some places have
already quit lotteries."
Questions and Essay Topics
Write an essay that presents
your opinion on why the ancestors of the villagers began the lottery.
Give several examples of questionable
traditions or customs, such as hazing, in which people today participate.
Black is a symbol representing
evil or death. Sunlight is a symbol representing joy and happiness. Give
other examples of symbols that writers regularly use in short stories,
poems, and novels.
Write an essay that describes
the tone (mood) of the story. Present examples from the story that support