Shirley Jackson depicts a special day, June 27, in the lives of the inhabitants of a small, apparently serene village. The use of foreshadowing is applied extensively to hint to the reader that despite the seemingly festive occasion, there is something morbid about the lottery that causes the people of the town to be uneasy. Jackson foreshadows the ironic conclusion with specific examples and both ominous and tense diction.
The earliest indication of the peculiarity of the day’s lottery is the little boys had “already stuffed [their] pockets full of stones” (422). One knows that a lottery in modern societies definitely does not involve rocks, so the idea that the town’s lottery is much different than the ones known in today’s world is introduced. The fact that the men who begin to gather for the lottery stand “away from the pile of stones” shows that the stones are not a jovial part of the day’s events (422). These examples give the reader the idea that there is something important, yet shady about the pile of rocks. And although the men told jokes, “they smiled rather than laughed” (422). If the lottery was a carefree event, the men would have had no problem with laughing. The description of the actions of the group of men creates the impression that the lottery is a serious event which is not about laughing matters.
During the lottery, after most of the men had chosen and drawn their scrap of paper, they sat “turning them over and over nervously” (425). If the lottery was being conducted to give out some sort of reward or prize, they would have seemed eager, not nervous. Jackson also describes the way Mr. Summers and Mr. Adams grin at each other as “nervously” (425). The repetition of the word nervous reinforces that the lottery is not one of fun and games. In addition, Mrs. Dunbar’s anticipation for Mr. Summers to “hurry” shows that the lottery is not the type of occasion the people enjoy participating in and would rather get over with quickly (425).
Therefore it is obvious that the lottery would not have a pleasant outcome. Instead, the lottery must have some sort of negative outcome that is serious
enough to make the entire town nervous.
The most significant sign of the abnormal nature of the lottery is the introduction of the “black box” (422). In most people’s minds the color black is associated with death. When it is revealed that there are scraps of paper in the box, the reader is also exposed to what the box is used for: to hold the papers which the villagers will draw. In essence, the connotation of the color black creates the impression that when the villagers draw from the box, they are drawing for a chance at death. This example foreshadows exactly what will happen when the story concludes. Next Jackson describes the lottery as being a “ritual” that once involved a “chant” (423).
The connotation of these words also supports the idea that the lottery revolves around death. When one thinks of a ritual, pictures of Ancient Aztec or Mayan sacrifices come to mind. And when one thinks of chanting, images of hooded figures preparing someone for a sacrifice surface. So through the use of ominous nouns and adjectives, Jackson is explicitly stating what is going to happen as a result of the lottery; a human sacrifice is going to take place.
Although as the story progresses there is more and more of a feeling of doom, the reader does not become acutely aware of what takes place after the lottery until Mrs. Hutchinson cowers in a corner with the mob approaching her. If one analyzes the color of the box and its purpose, it is possible to predict the outcome of the lottery, but otherwise all other methods of foreshadowing provide the reader with a strong feeling that something disturbing is going to occur.
The key to the success Shirley Jackson has had with readers of "The Lottery" over the years is that we do not see the evil coming until it has arrived. She does a masterful job of setting us up to believe that this mysterious lottery will be something fun and pleasant; after all, everyone in town is gathered as if for a parade or a carnival. Looking back after we have finished reading and know what happens at the end, of course, we can see some foreshadowing of the evil to come.
First, we have all the rocks. When we read the story for the first time, the gathering of rocks seems a bit odd but certainly not ominous; the rocks are a detail which gets overlooked because of all the other positive details in the story.
Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix-- the villagers pronounced this name "Dellacroy"--eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.
The lottery is part of a list of fun, harmless events, such as Halloween parties and square dances; because of that, we overlook the fact that one of the lottery's props is a "black wooden box," which is slightly more ominous than, say, a pumpkin. The box is in bad shape:
The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.
Again, none of this seems at all ominous at the time we read it, but clearly this is a well used and well worn box which has been used to help murder one person a year for many, many years.
Not everything is as it seems here, as evidenced by one word in the following sentence:
Mr. Summers was very good at all this; in his clean white shirt and blue jeans. with one hand resting carelessly on the black box. he seemed very proper and important as he talked interminably.
Note the word seemed as it is used here, an indication that how he is dressed and what he is here to do are at odds somehow.
Mr. Summer starts the proceedings, and, in hindsight, his words have an ominous ring to them.
"Well, now." Mr. Summers said soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work. Anybody ain't here?"
Notice that he says "get this over with," which is certainly not what one would say for something fun and special. His question is also rather unusual for a happy occasion. Normally one would ask "is everyone here?" Instead he asks the reverse: is there anyone who is not here?
Soon the number of ominous details begins to increase. The crowd is silent, the men hold their papers "nervously" in their hands, a few people talk of quitting the lottery in other towns, there are some long, breathless pauses, and then the shouting begins. That is when we know for certain that "winning the lottery" is not a good thing in this setting.
Again, Jackson artfully disguises these small but certain indicators that something more ominous is happening in this story; it is only after the fact that we can see them as clues of impending doom.