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The Use of Rising Tension in "The Lottery"

written by: Elton Gahr • edited by: Ronda Bowen • updated: 1/5/2012

"The Lottery" is remarkable it its transition from a simple story of small town America into a disturbing horror story. It does this through a slow rise in the action as the reader begins to understand the odd events are not just strange to them but very sinister.

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    One of the most powerful aspects of the story of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is that it is able to create a feeling of rising tension in a story where very little actually happens and the true nature of the story is only revealed in the last lines. It is because of that slow growth in discomfort that the final lines hit with such great impact. Yet, even though the reader should sense the rising action in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson instinctively, to actually understand what the author has done and why requires a bit more focused attention.

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    Small Town America

    The lottery by shirley jackson 

    The author of "The Lottery" goes out of her way to make the story feel as mundane as possible at its beginning. There is a discussion of everyday events anyone can relate to. These moments include things like children getting out of school for summer and the picnics that are planned for later in the day. It is with these moments of every day normal life, along with hints of what is going to happen, which creates a scene anyone can relate to. Yet, even here, there are hints something more is happening. This is important because putting the reader into a scene they understand creates a larger story arc and puts the reader at ease so that the impact of the story is much stronger.

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    The Lottery Box

    The first clear hint that the lottery is a truly important event in the life of this town is the appearance of the lottery box. There are a number of important clues to the overall themes of the story in the box. People are actually hesitant to touch the box. At this point that fear is subtle and the reader may hardly notice, but it hints at things the reader doesn't yet know and is strange enough to make most readers uncomfortable simply due to being strange.

    The other important point the lottery box helps to make clear is the age of the lottery. The box itself is not the original lottery box, and no one knows exactly what happened to the original box. This is important because the basic conflict of "The Lottery" is that of unquestioned tradition and both the age of the tradition and lack of connection to the original meaning are important to that point. The events that happen in "The Lottery" may have once had a meaning, but that meaning has been lost and has little more connection to the original reasons than the box does to the original lottery box.

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    Starting The Lottery

    The next major point in the story is the beginning of drawing names for the lottery. With everyone in town having arrived to draw from the box it is clear that entering the lottery is not a choice. Every person and every household in the town is required to enter, including women and children. Even if the reader has not sensed anything negative about the lottery yet, it is clear just how vitally interested everyone is in the outcome. This helps to make that outcome important to the reader because they will understand that it isn’t simply a meaningless ritual. In addition it is important that the reader understand that children are involved in these events because it is the teaching of traditions that keeps them alive.

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    The Lottery Ending

    One of the parts of the story which can, in the first reading, feel unimportant is a conversation between two older men. This hints at the ultimate end of the ritual of the lottery. They are commenting on the rumors that other towns have actually abandoned the lottery. Their disgust at the abandonment of traditions is reinforced by the idea that it is a step back for civilization. This is not only ironic because the reader almost certainly finds the events in "The Lottery" barbaric. Beyond that irony though this conversation is important to understanding the themes of "The Lottery". It is this anger at failing to continue to do things the ways they have always been done, and the possibilities of change that give the strongest hints as to the meaning of " The Lottery". They also create conflict between the reader and the characters once the reader understands the lottery.

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    Drawing the Tickets

    Shirley Jackson The Lottery 

    The action really begins as the drawing of the lottery begins. The head of each household picks out one slip of paper and reveals it to the town. This feels reasonably normal until the end since lotteries at fairs and other events are not that uncommon. At the point that one of the families is chosen the panic and fear appears and makes it clear that something bad is happening.

    At this point the actions of the story is also condensed with descriptions shorter and time moving faster. Tessie Hutchinson insists there was something unfair and tries to convince the town to redo the lottery because it was unfair, but no one is listening. Even now though she doesn't try to convince them to stop the lottery only that someone else should be its target. At this point there is no doubt that something bad is going to happen, though what that is remains unclear until the last seconds of the story.

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    Understanding The Lottery

    The final rise in conflict in "The Lottery" is between the reader and the characters of the story. Tessie Hutchinson reveals the black dot on the paper showing that she has won the lottery. The woman is in a near panic as she begins to run. The town follows and the piles of stones which were shown in the first lines reappear. This revelation is far more terrifying than the actual violence, which is cut short. The reader can feel almost betrayed by the people of the town just as Tessie is betrayed. To maximize this impact the author ends the story just as the reader understands completely what has happened with the victim's statement ‘It isn’t fair. It isn’t Right.’.

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    One of the things that makes "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson such a power story is that the author is able to create a nearly perfectly timed rise in action. Every piece of information builds on the natural tension of not understanding what is happening in the story and make the reader more tense without giving away much information. This creates a slow, but growing, rise in conflict that is never really resolved in the story, but left with the reader even after the story has concluded. Instead, the author cuts the story off at the very moment of revelation and peak action.

References

  • Image, The Lottery Cover, http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41rE5qApp5L._SL500_AA300_.jpg
  • Story, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
  • Image, Lottery Cover, http://northbennington.org/_images/Misc/Shirley_Jackson_The_Lottery.jpg