Analyze Literature: ''The Lottery''

Contributor: Dru Cartier. Lesson ID: 13686

Close reads of short stories teach us a lot about writing and how to find deeper meanings. Build your close-reading skills with this look at Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery".


Literary Studies, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

It's finally here! The lottery!

  • That's a good thing…right?

As we work with Shirley Jackson's gothic short story, "The Lottery", you decide if it is something you would want to participate in. I think I'll pass though.

lottery quote

Before completing this lesson, you will need to read "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. If you do not have access to a hard copy, you can read "The Lottery" as it appeared when first published in The New Yorker in 1948.

As you read "The Lottery", take note of the imagery, the character's actions, and the overall mood. You may use The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Grpahic Organizer, found under the Downloadable Resources in the right-hand sidebar.

These are the elements we will use to analyze this short story. By the end of this lesson, you will be able to identify the hidden meaning in any story.

Our big question:

  • Is tradition always a good thing?

When you are ready, keep going to begin analyzing.

sunny fence

  • What did you think of "The Lottery"?
  • Did the calm and peaceful surroundings make the horrific ending easier to handle, or did it make it more of a shock?

Refer back to the notes you made about the imagery, character's actions, and the mood on your Graphic Organizer as we progress through the lesson.

These basic story elements are great tools for dissecting what you've read and finding the deeper meaning.

First, let's define these elements.

Imagery is the language the author uses to create the setting. It has a big impact on the mood.

Take a look again at the opening passage from "The Lottery" and decide which words you think help create the setting by using imagery.

Image - Video

Mood is the feeling the author creates with the setting and the events that take place.

(Imagine if Harry Potter stories took place on a sunny beach lined with hotels and giant yachts. It just wouldn't be the same, would it?)

Read another passage from "The Lottery" and decide which words you think help create the mood.

Image - Video

Characters' actions are what drive the story forward.

They are especially important in a short story because there is so little space for development that the character's actions take on multiple roles.

Revisit one more passage from "The Lottery" and decide which words you think show the actions of the characters.

Image - Video

At this point, just a few paragraphs into the story, we have learned a lot about this town.

It appears to be like any other, at first glance anyway. Kids run around and play, parents chat about chores and their responsibilities. Girls talk with friends…

It would appear there is nothing out of the ordinary here. Though, there are the children collecting an awful lot of rocks. Hmm...


  • Based on what we have learned so far, what can you infer the mood to be at the beginning of the story?

Image - Video

  • What imagery gives you that impression?

Image - Video

  • What character actions support that impression?

Image - Video


sunny pasture

After the first three paragraphs, Jackson introduces us to why everyone is gathering - The Lottery!

She takes a good amount of time setting up the environment for us without letting us know why we are there. This not only helps set the mood that everything is pleasant and gives us a false sense of security, but increases our curiosity.

  • What's with all the stones?!?

Jackson explicitly reveals details about the lottery:

  • How is it conducted?

the same as the square dances, the teen club, and the Halloween program


for over 80 years

  • Who conducts it ?

Mr. Summers, a jovial man with time for such civic activities

the postmaster helps him

two villagers hold the stool

  • What materials are needed?

a black wooden box

slips of paper

and a stool

fall trees

As we learn more about the history behind the lottery, we discover it is older than the longest-living (longest-surviving) person in town, Old Man Warner. The lottery is steeped in tradition too.

  • Did you notice they've kept some traditions, but lost others?

Sort the traditions in the space below.

Image - Video

We can infer from what has been lost or changed, in combination with what has stayed the same, to mean that this group of people is willing to violently kill an innocent person without a clear reason as to why.

All they know is that the lottery has always been done this way, so they keep doing it.

sunset field

Once the names start getting called, the townsfolk draw their slips of paper and return to the crowd.

  • What is the mood of the story at this mid-point?

Image - Video

  • What helps us feel this shift in the mood?
  • Which of the following quotes shows the change in mood from pleasant to anxious?

Image - Video

As names continue getting called, we learn a little more about the towns around this one and how, according to Mr. Adams, "over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

  • How does Old Man Warner respond to that idea?

Image - Video

This interaction highlights the different ways of thinking between older generations and younger ones.

As we learn, Old Man Warner has survived the lottery 77 times (which presents its own cause for speculation as to whether or not there's something fishy going on there).

With that in mind, Old Man Warner is going to have a very different perspective on whether to get rid of the lottery.

  • What are the reasons he gives for keeping it?

Image - Video

Old Man Warner's reasons for keeping the lottery are not what you would call "rock solid." (Get it? Rock...solid.)

tradition definition

  • Is keeping a tradition alive purely because it has "always" been there a good reason?

Not really. In fact, it's a terrible reason, and that leads to the precise theme of this short story.

Shirley Jackson wanted her readers to question the assumed expectations and traditions around them. She didn't want anyone blindly following along like our townsfolk have been for well over eight decades.

We could not have come to this realization without having taken close looks at mood, imagery, and the characters' actions. Each of those elements plays a large role in the development of the author's message.

Without the imagery there to set the mood, we would have a harder time understanding what the characters are feeling and thinking. Without the characters' actions we wouldn't know what is going on.

All of these are vital to what is about to come...the ironic and shocking end.


All of the heads of the households have drawn their slips of paper.

As we discover the "winning" family is the Hutchinsons, we see a dramatic shift in Tessie's character. Earlier on, she playfully pushed her husband Bill forward as their last name was called and said, "Get up there, Bill."

Now that her family has drawn the black dot, her entire personality changes. She suddenly shouts that the drawing wasn't fair and that Mr. Summers rushed her husband.

Other people tell her to "be a good sport" and that they all "took the same chance." Even her husband tells her to "shut up."

Showing more of her true personality, Tessie says her married daughter should draw with them as well. Mr. Summers reminds her that they draw with their husbands' families.

This shows us just what kind of a person Tessie is. When it is her life on the line she will do whatever it takes to protect herself; it's just human instinct to want to survive. Even her children seem to appreciate that it wasn't them that were chosen.

Soon though…the townsfolk are upon her.

Head over to the Got It? section to hone those close-reading skills.

Image - Button Next