Short stories

Hints of Evil: How Shirley Jackson Foreshadows the True Meaning of “The Lottery”

Nearly everyone who reads Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery cannot even begin to fathom the true meaning of the lottery until it has already happened. The shock that we experience at the end on learning that the lottery’s winner becomes a sacrificial lamb to fulfill a tradition that has long lost its meaning catches us off guard.

And I think this is partly the reason this short story is still a success among Jackson’s readers; unknown to the reader, she builds on suspense that we only come to realize in the end. The hints that Jackson provides throughout the story only become evident after the first read. It is then that we go back to the story from the beginning and start seeing these instances of foreshadowing in bolder colors.

Summary: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

It is the morning of June 27th- a beautiful sunny summer morning in a small, seemingly peaceful village. The villagers have begun assembling in the square. Children first, followed by the men, then the women in their faded house dresses and sweaters. Mr. Summers soon arrives carrying a wooden black box and accompanied by Mr. Graves, who puts a three-legged stool at the center of the square. Two villagers, Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter help Mr. Summers steady the black box on the stool. Soon, the lottery begins with a few formalities, followed by the household leaders picking a paper from the wooden box. There is some tension, nervous smiles, the restless turning of papers as villagers await every house head to pick a paper. Bill Hutchinson picks the marked paper and his entire household has to individually pick a paper from the box to determine the ‘winner’. Tessie Hutchinson picks the paper with a black spot and to the reader’s shock, the villagers begin to stone her.

Literary Analysis: Foreshadow in The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The first ominous hint Jackson provides is the children gathering stones into a heap and others stuffing their pockets with the smoothest and roundest ones. It is important to note that at this point, there’s no explanation or use of the stones yet. The criteria for selecting the stones- smoothest and roundest- almost seem strategic but we tend to disregard this as innocent child play or even get lost in all the other positive things mentioned at the beginning.

The talk and behavior among men as they assemble in the square is also rather odd for people who are looking forward to the prospects of being a lottery winner.

“Soon the men began to gather, surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes. They stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed. ”

In some cases, the details of foreshadowing are subtle. However, in a short story, it’s important not to overlook even the least of details because every word counts.

For instance, Mr. Summers arrives in the square followed by Mr.Graves. This form of name symbolism is prescient of the events about to unfold. On a warm summer morning, one of the villagers will be sent to their grave.

Jackson weaves these hints of evil effectively to signify that this is not your typical lottery.

As Mr.Summers sets down the black box on the stool, the villagers keep their distance and are even hesitant to help him steady it on the stool as he stirs the papers. She narrates, ”  there was a hesitation before two men, Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, came forward to hold the box steady on the stool while Mr. Summers stirred up the papers inside it.”

The manner in which the villagers keep their distance from the box and hesitate to help suggest that they do not want any association with what the black box represents.

The box is another primary hint that readers might disregard because after all, this is a lottery. However a specifically black box that has chipped away along one side to show its original wood is too much of a foreshadow to ignore.

In almost any form of art, an artist’s choice of colour is not a mere coincidence. It’s a well-known fact that different colours have various meanings and can change the mood or create a particular psychological effect. Black has always symbolized evil, fear, mystery, and death. The story places a black box as the core of the lottery paraphernalia to foreshadow an imminent evil.

A friend commented that the splintered side is symbolic of the old-fashioned tradition of stoning to death of one villager each year but that is on symbolism.

Tessie Hutchinson comes in late, and this instantly sets her apart or, in other words, places her at the back of our minds throughout the story. Notice how Mr.Summers remarks are eerily predictive of what is about to happen to Tessie;

“Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie.”

Right after that, Mr. Summers says, “‘ guess we better get started, get this over with, so’s we can go back to work. Anybody ain’t here?'” The lack of enthusiasm or excitement for a master of ceremony leading a lottery is an implication that there will not be much to celebrate after the event.

As each of the house heads step forward to pick a paper from the black box, there is tension among villagers. A sudden hush, humorless and nervous grins, Mr. Graves gravely greeting Mr. Summers before picking a paper, Mrs. Dunbar’s restlessness, and talks of neighboring villages quitting the lottery. The process is filled with a lot of suspense, and the mood created is evident of a looming evil. It foreshadows the next set of events as villagers open their papers and there is relief from people whose papers are blank.

The hints and signs culminate when Tessie protests angrily after her husband, Bill Hutchinson picks the paper with a black spot.

“‘You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!'”

It is then we realize that winning the lottery does not mean a happy ending for the winner. Events progress quickly and within no time, the villagers are moving in on Tessie with stones- some too large to pick with one hand- to sacrifice her as part of the village’s traditions.

Shirley Jackson does an excellent job of evoking the shock that readers experience at the end on learning the horrific meaning of the lottery. The shock is unexpected and it’s only after the initial read that we begin to see the instances of foreshadowing clearly. Jackson weaves these hints of evil effectively to signify that this is not your typical lottery.

What are your thoughts and questions on The Lottery by Shirley Jackson? Let me know in the comment section.

Leave a Reply