A gathering of neighbors on a bright sunny day might seem like a summer picnic, but Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" proves this setting to be something more sinister. The story of a town that casts lots to choose which of its citizens should be sacrificed to ensure a good harvest, "The Lottery" inspired outrage and controversy when it was published in "The New Yorker" in 1948. Today, Jackson's use of ambiguity and atmosphere to create suspense continues to shock and horrify readers.
A Gradual Unveiling
Jackson creates suspense by positioning readers as outsiders to the town's activities. Rather than explain the lottery ritual up front, she gives bits and pieces of information that the reader must assemble. The beginning of the story, for example, informs readers that the length of time taken for the lottery varies among different towns due to population. As the story unfolds, the characters reveal that the lottery is conducted to ensure a profitable harvest, but that many communities are giving the tradition up. Letting readers watch the lottery and the dissenting opinions about it unfold creates ambiguity and suspense about its significance.
The sense of suspense also grows because of the change in mood throughout the story. The opening projects a sunny summer morning complete with sweet-smelling flowers, and the playful, joking atmosphere among the children and adults add to this atmosphere. As the story progresses, the lighthearted mood begins to fade. Many characters become nervous, and, when all the paper slips are distributed, everyone "began to speak at once" after a solemn moment of silence. While the story begins in high spirits, it gradually descends into the panic Tessie experiences when she's selected for the lottery.
Foretelling the Finish
Foreshadowing, the use of details that indicate a future event, also establishes the suspenseful nature of "The Lottery." While things appear to be business as usual for the townsfolk as they prepare for the lottery, some descriptions show that the event isn't what it seems to be. The boys gather the pile of rocks that will be used to stone the lottery winner, and the townspeople shrink away as the black box is brought forward. The box's damaged, stained condition, perhaps by blood and a stray stone, also points early on to the story's dramatic ending.
The townspeople all play different roles in the lottery, but it's Tessie, the housewife who becomes the town's sacrifice, who is the story's most memorable character. Jackson uses Tessie to create suspense by showing readers her change of opinion about the lottery. When she arrives, she jokes good-naturedly with the crowd, but when her husband draws the black dot, narrowing the results down to her family, she becomes antagonistic and demands that they start over. This heightened reaction reveals the lottery's dark nature, causing readers to feel uneasy about what might be coming next.
Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.