The underlying thematic conflict of “The Lottery” is the tension between the community’s blind acceptance of tradition and the horrific act that this blindness permits. The villagers are aware that they continue to carry out the lottery each year, but they fail to truly comprehend its consequences. Each character engages with this moral paradox throughout the story, although Tessie’s appearance midway through the text adds another layer of conflict. For a protagonist, Tessie plays a fairly limited role in the actual action of the story, remaining complicit in the brutal nature of the lottery until she becomes the victim of it. Only then does the central narrative conflict, Tessie’s singular objections to the event challenging the town’s group mindset, emerge. Highlighting this individual versus group dynamic enables Jackson to show why the thematic tension of the story is unresolvable. As Tessie’s inability to prevent her death suggests, the collective overpowers any singular effort to implement change.
Jackson sets up this notion of a group mentality right from the beginning of the story, using the opening paragraph to describe both the size of the village and the way that the community gathers for the lottery. Her primary focus on groups of people, rather than exploring the identities of specific characters, also emphasizes the importance of the collective over the individual. Highlighting the distinct arrivals of the children, men, and women takes precedence over establishing any of the story’s main characters in the first few paragraphs. Although Tessie has yet to make an appearance, this introduction to the town and their mysterious lottery serves as the text’s inciting incident. The first instance of character development accompanies the introduction of Mr. Summers, an individual who ironically ensures that the community’s group mentality remains intact. He essentially symbolizes the village as a whole, much like the shabby black box he uses for the paper slips represents the overall concept of the lottery: dark, outdated, and still in use.
The rising action begins as the reader learns more about the history of the lottery and continues as Tessie abruptly arrives at the gathering. Many of the original aspects of the lottery no longer exist in the village’s collective memory, yet they still cling to the black box and the practice of the event itself. The fact that the community openly acknowledges these forgotten details suggests that they are less invested in accurately preserving a cultural practice and more interested in maintaining the status quo by repeating the same event year after year. The repetitive nature of the lottery makes Tessie’s late appearance even more surprising, especially considering that virtually every member of the community is present and invested in the proceedings. Tessie’s unique entrance into the narrative immediately establishes her character as one distinct from the rest and foreshadows her eventual attempts to resist the group mindset that the lottery evokes.
When the process of the lottery finally begins, everyone in attendance initially appears to have a similar outlook on the day’s events. Each family participates and, despite an underlying sense of anxiety from some, Mr. Summers receives no pushback. This dynamic, which further emphasizes the collective understanding of the tradition, quickly shifts when Mr. Hutchinson draws the marked slip of paper. Almost instantly, Tessie exclaims that the drawing was unfair, an act which marks the climax of the story. The conflict between her as an individual and the rest of the community becomes more explicit, and the thematic tension between blind acceptance and the horrors it allows emerges more clearly as well. Mrs. Graves’s retort that “all of [them] took the same chance” reflects the shared, critical attitude which the group holds toward those who refuse to mindlessly follow tradition. Now that her life is in danger, Tessie is more aware of just how severe the consequences of the lottery can be.
The falling action of the story includes the official selection of Tessie as the victim of the lottery and the onslaught of stones that begin to make their way towards her, inevitably leading to her death. What makes Jackson’s narrative unique is that the central conflict remains unresolved at the end. As the protagonist, Tessie is unable to effectively challenge the group mindset and the persistence of the tradition that ultimately kills her. This failure is one of the many ways in which Jackson creates suspense and horror throughout the story.