Shirley Jackson is a master at manipulating her reader, a tactic that pays off as the story unfolds and all of the things that once seemed pleasant are shown to have a very dark side. The title of the “The Lottery” alone is a great example of how Shirley Jackson topples reader expectations; we usually hear the word “lottery” and are filled with a sense of hope and possibility; we are expecting it is going to be a story about someone who wins something. Little do we know what a grim prize it will be, of course. The title of “The Lottery” itself can serve as a thesis statement for writing about the story. One of the other ways “The Lottery” turns readers on their heads is because of the contrast between scenes of normal small town life—a life that is so often idealized—versus the grim reality of what the lottery really is.
The horror of the lottery sinks in well after the reader has finished a first pass of the text and has time to go back and revisit some of the events. For instance, when we consider that this has been described as a “civic” activity in the same vein as other community events like dances or teenage clubs, we see how disturbingly ingrained and “normal” ritual violence has become. Other elements of true horror also sink later; for example, consider young Davy Hutchinson, so young he can barely hold the slip of paper in his tight baby fist—what if he had drawn the slip of paper. There was no mention about who could or could not be stoned, so who’s to say the child would not have been immune? Is it right to consider that a child could be stoned to death (or not—we are never told when it ends) since, after all, all children are allowed to throw the stones along with the adults?
One of the other unspoken disturbing elements of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is that the reader is never sure what the outcome of the lottery is going to be. We know that the unlucky “winner” of the lottery will be stoned, but to death? Until he or she begs for mercy? Unfortunately, given the nature of this story and the past of witch trials in early American communities to which Shirley Jackson gives more than a casual nod to, we can assume that the unfortunate will be stoned to death.
There are so many elements in “The Lottery” that are not realized for their full horrific consequences until after the fact. Little Davy, the children gathering stones so they can take part in group violence, the fact that Tessie even tried to get her in-laws into the second round of drawing so they could have an “equal chance” at getting stones thrown at them…the horror really never ends and in fact, is magnified each time it is read again.
If one is looking to compare “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson to another short story, the search would be made much quicker by simply looking to the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In fact, “The Lottery” is so like “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” in terms of themes, if one didn’t know any better, it could easily be suggested that they were written by the same author.