Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a horror tale but also a lesson in the dangers of following along with the crowd and what people are willing to do because they believe they “should” do it. Jackson’s tale is also full of irony, as nothing is as it first seems. Throughout the story, Jackson uses irony to keep the reader off-guard, so the final horrific scene catches the reader by surprise.
The irony starts with the story’s title. In our world, a lottery is usually something good or at least has the potential to be good. Therefore, when we see the villagers gathering for the annual lottery, and nearly all of them enthusiastic about the prospect, we naturally assume that the “winner” of the lottery is going to have the luckiest day of his or her life. However, just the opposite is true.
The setting for the story is also full of Jackson’s use of irony. It is a pleasant village on a warm and sunny June day. “The flowers were blooming profusely and the grass was richly green (Jackson 1).” Her description of the setting is ironic because everything seems so normal. The children are happy to be out of school. Women are leaving their kitchens to come and participate, wiping their hands on their aprons and rounding up their families. Even the time frame set forth in the story is ironic: “the 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 (Jackson 1).” This gives a casual feeling to the whole event. There is none of the solemnity normally associated with ritual death. Even the man who runs the lottery, Mr. Summers, is an ironic character. He not only handles the lottery set-up but also plans the village’s Halloween festivities and is a square dance caller as well. In Jackson’s story, overseeing human sacrifice and carving pumpkins are equally minor tasks.
The most ironic figure, sadly, is the ultimate victim, Mrs. Hutchinson. At first, she is perfectly happy to be part of the village ritual, urging her husband to “get up there” and draw the family’s lot (Jackson 3). However, as the trap begins to close, she becomes less and less enthusiastic about the process, complaining that her husband did not have enough time to draw, that the process is not fair. In the end, Mrs. Hutchinson receives the slip of paper with the black spot—and her neighbors, her friendly, civilized neighbors, stone her to death as she screams, “It isn’t fair! It isn’t right! (Jackson 7).” Mrs. Hutchinson is correct, of course, but no one cares. To Jackson, that is the greatest irony of all, that under our civilized exterior, we are all animals, willing to turn on each other in the name of tradition.