Critique of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

Last Updated: May 15, 2024

Critique of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

A critique of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” would delve into the story’s chilling portrayal of conformity, the power of tradition, and the darkness lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. Here’s how such a critique might be structured and articulated:

Critique of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

Title and Author:
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

First published in 1948 in The New Yorker, “The Lottery” is a short story set in a small American town. On a serene summer day, the entire community gathers for an annual lottery. However, the initially quaint scene belies the violent conclusion, where the lottery winner is stoned to death. This shocking twist serves as a powerful critique of societal norms.

The primary theme of “The Lottery” is the danger of blindly following traditions. The townsfolk adhere to the lottery ritual without question, even though the original purpose of the lottery is no longer known. Jackson challenges readers to consider how traditions can often perpetuate arbitrary cruelty and social injustice. Another crucial theme is the individual’s role within society, explored through the community’s collective responsibility in the brutal act.

The characters in “The Lottery” are portrayed as typical townspeople, which makes the story’s conclusion even more disturbing. Jackson effectively uses the characters as symbols of societal compliance. Tessie Hutchinson, who becomes the lottery’s victim, initially joins in the lottery without question. Her eventual rebellion and futile protests against the tradition only when her own safety is threatened underscore the hypocrisy and inherent selfishness in the social human condition.

The setting of a small town is integral to the story, symbolizing the universality of the themes Jackson addresses. The sunny day and casual atmosphere of the lottery event contrast starkly with its horrific outcome, enhancing the shock and horror experienced by the reader.

Jackson uses symbolism effectively throughout the story. The black box from which the lots are drawn represents tradition. It is old, shabby, and even splintered—yet no one in the town feels the need to replace it, symbolizing their blind adherence to tradition. The stones collected by the townspeople, especially the children, symbolize the violence and cruelty hidden in plain sight within the community.

Writing Style:
Jackson’s straightforward narrative style and her control over the pacing create a building tension that culminates in the story’s shocking end. Her ability to weave dialogue, setting, and action together maintains a superficial normalcy that makes the final revelation more impactful.

Impact and Reception:
Upon its publication, “The Lottery” was met with public outrage, leading to canceled subscriptions for The New Yorker and a deluge of hate mail to Jackson. Yet, it has since become a seminal work in American literature, widely studied for its profound commentary on societal and psychological themes.

While “The Lottery” is celebrated for its incisive look at the dark aspects of human nature and societal traditions, it has also faced criticism for its bleak outlook and the perceived simplicity of its message that tradition is blindly followed. Some critics argue that the characters are too flat, serving more as vessels for the story’s message than as fully realized individuals.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson remains a powerful, unsettling story that forces readers to reflect on their own societal traditions and the potential for cruelty those traditions can harbor. Its enduring relevance speaks to Jackson’s mastery in capturing the complexities of human nature and social conformity.

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