Study Guide to
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
It's best not to read further in this study guide until you have completed your first reading.  After you've read the savored the story a few times, give some thought to the following issues.

How does this story tell us that we are to take the lottery as symbolic?

SJ got a lot of mail in response to this story.  She was shocked to find that some readers wanted to know where they could go to watch this event.  We can imagine that there were two parts to her reaction. 

Why was Jackson justified in supposing readers could reason their way to the conclusion that the events of the story do not correspond to lotteries that (in 1948, when the story appeared in *The New Yorker*), had been going on for generations in small-town America?  What did these readers fail to take into account that the author was reasonably expecting them to take into account?

What, in American society (of her day, or perhaps even ours) might Jackson be pointing to, with the lottery of her story? 

Let's rephrase this.  Instead of asking what the "lottery" is that Jackson might be asking Americans to notice they might be involved in, let's ask:  How does her story point us to what the lottery is symbolic of?

This question (about technique) is easier to get a handle on.  The one we started with -- essentially a question about the ultimate theme of the story as a whole -- confronts us with too large a jump.  It's easy to be at a loss as to how we'd even go about it.  But a question about how a story goes about pointing us to whatever it might be pointing us to gives us a workable starting point -- and one that, we can be reasonably confident, will eventually lead us to get hold of whatever it is that it is pointing at.

Well, we'd first have to imagine (construct) the "kind of" thing the lottery is. 

(Then we'd set about imagining other sorts of practices or institutions that, if they were to show up, might qualify as "the same sorts of things" [strictly speaking, as instances of the same kind of thing the literal lottery of the story, were it to be real, would be].)

But first things first: how do we construct this category of thing? 

The key problem will be to abstract from the lottery the appropriate traits. 

How do we know what these are?

Well, presumably, at least certain of the key properties of the lottery for this purpose will be the ones that Jackson has contrived, in one way or another, to attract our attention to. What are some of these? 

Pay special attention to the history of the lottery implied by the story. What must have been its sense in the ancient past? (What are the clues here?) What's striking about the persistence in it by the present generation? (Are they "primitive"?)

What issues are ironically pointed to by Mrs. Hutchinson's protest at the end?

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   Contents copyright © 2003 by Lyman A. Baker.

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  This page last updated 25 January 2004 .