Writing Assignment on
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

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When Shirley Jackson would read her famous story "The Lottery" to college audiences, she used to preface the reading with a brief "biography of the story," in which she also discussed the response the avalanche of response the story generated in the weeks after its publication in The New Yorker Magazine on June 28, 1948.  She offers excerpts from a number of responses, but saves her shocker for last:

Curiously there were three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer - three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashio0ned abuse.  In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even - in one completely mystifying transformation - made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed.  I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence.  People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.

Your job:  discuss the thematic importance of the setting in Jackson's story.  But let's try to do this in a deep and challenging way.

Begin by asking, "Where did these particular early readers go wrong?"   Begin by pointing out what the facts of the story were that led them to suppose that they could find such lotteries going on somewhere in the country.  Then address a more subtle question: what had they failed to notice and take into account?  Is it that they had overlooked some facts of the story?  Is it that they failed to reflect adequately on the implications of what they already knew concerning the world they were living in -the "real world"?  Were they out of touch with some conventions about reading fiction that the author assumed they were familiar with and equipped to recognize were called for here?  

Mindful of the issues you turn up in addressing the above, turn to asking what Jackson was up to in deciding to set the events of the story (the lottery, its history and persistence into the story's present) as she did.  Of course there was a shock value in doing so.  But is could there be something more interesting than that -- something worth reflecting on?  Could this decision be thematically motivated?

It may be that you feel yourself on shakey ground with this.  That's natural.  After all, if the story has any thematic significance, the author has clearly chosen to get at it "by detour."  Put the other way round, if the story has more to it than just gruesome shock value, Jackson has made the strategic decision to force us to arrive at it by speculation.  So feeling unsure and tentative is in the nature of the game, if this is the sort of game she's inviting us to play.  The task is merely to speculate in a serious way (I didn't say a somber way!) -- to take care to continually check our speculation against the concrete facts of the story, since in this sort of game, it is by carefully chosing and shaping details that the author implicitly defines the kind of case she is asking us to think through the implications of.

To speak of designing a story as a way of defining a kind of case is to remind us of the way both realistic stories and parables work:  they use a particular specific concrete situation to raise for inspection issues to point to a general type of case that, in turn, embraces or includes an indefinite number of actual or potential specific concrete cases which, in virtue of the issues they embody, engage our intellectual curiosity or moral interest.  In other words, we are talking about how real and imaginary situations take on the power to represent other situations.  In reality, of course, things represent other things because of how the people who enter into the transaction (here, the teller and the listener, the writer and the reader) agree to use the objects (here the imaginary situation) that the one offers up to the other.

If you find that you aren't getting to the point of being able to bring into focus an eligible "referent" for the story -- a situation (more likely, a kind of situation) to which it might plausibly be taken to point to -- then see if you can instead list the facts of the story that you think are functioning to define the sort of situation you think "The Lottery" might be standing for.  For each one you list, say what it is about it that you think is important, and why you think that is important.  We can then get together in class, pool what we've all come up with, and see what we can "make out of" it all.


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  This page last updated 28 March 1999.