Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Danger of Blindly Following Tradition

The village lottery culminates in a violent murder each year, a bizarre ritual that suggests how dangerous tradition can be when people follow it blindly. Before we know what kind of lottery they’re conducting, the villagers and their preparations seem harmless, even quaint: they’ve appointed a rather pathetic man to lead the lottery, and children run about gathering stones in the town square. Everyone is seems preoccupied with a funny-looking black box, and the lottery consists of little more than handmade slips of paper. Tradition is endemic to small towns, a way to link families and generations. Jackson, however, pokes holes in the reverence that people have for tradition. She writes that the villagers don’t really know much about the lottery’s origin but try to preserve the tradition nevertheless.

The villagers’ blind acceptance of the lottery has allowed ritual murder to become part of their town fabric. As they have demonstrated, they feel powerless to change—or even try to change—anything, although there is no one forcing them to keep things the same. Old Man Warner is so faithful to the tradition that he fears the villagers will return to primitive times if they stop holding the lottery. These ordinary people, who have just come from work or from their homes and will soon return home for lunch, easily kill someone when they are told to. And they don’t have a reason for doing it other than the fact that they’ve always held a lottery to kill someone. If the villagers stopped to question it, they would be forced to ask themselves why they are committing a murder—but no one stops to question. For them, the fact that this is tradition is reason enough and gives them all the justification they need.

Read about the related theme of the prison of routine in James Joyce’s Dubliners.

The Randomness of Persecution

Villagers persecute individuals at random, and the victim is guilty of no transgression other than having drawn the wrong slip of paper from a box. The elaborate ritual of the lottery is designed so that all villagers have the same chance of becoming the victim—even children are at risk. Each year, someone new is chosen and killed, and no family is safe. What makes “The Lottery” so chilling is the swiftness with which the villagers turn against the victim. The instant that Tessie Hutchinson chooses the marked slip of paper, she loses her identity as a popular housewife. Her friends and family participate in the killing with as much enthusiasm as everyone else. Tessie essentially becomes invisible to them in the fervor of persecution. Although she has done nothing “wrong,” her innocence doesn’t matter. She has drawn the marked paper—she has herself become marked—and according to the logic of the lottery, she therefore must die.

Tessie’s death is an extreme example of how societies can persecute innocent people for absurd reasons. Present-day parallels are easy to draw, because all prejudices, whether they are based on race, sex, appearance, religion, economic class, geographical region, family background, or sexual orientation, are essentially random. Those who are persecuted become “marked” because of a trait or characteristic that is out of their control—for example, they are the “wrong” sex or from the “wrong” part of the country. Just as the villagers in “The Lottery” blindly follow tradition and kill Tessie because that is what they are expected to do, people in real life often persecute others without questioning why. As Jackson suggests, any such persecution is essentially random, which is why Tessie’s bizarre death is so universal.

Read about the related theme of the dangers of mob mentality in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The Coexistence of Peace and Violence

The juxtaposition between the idyllic setting of the village and the brutal act of murder that occurs there works to challenge the assumption that a binary relationship exists between peace and violence. Rather than falling into one category or the other, the town’s decades-long commitment to the lottery suggests that individuals, or an entire group in this case, can embody both qualities simultaneously. Exploring this theme allows Jackson to heighten the shock factor at the end of the story by pushing back against traditional understandings of this binary.

The overall peaceful mood of the village emerges right away as Jackson describes the day as “clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day.” The connotations of the words in this description are all extremely positive and work to put the reader at ease as they begin to learn more about the dynamics of the village. This sense of peace appears in the narrative’s matter-of-fact tone as well. Jackson describes each aspect of the lottery with no judgement, offering information in a way that gives no indication of the dark truth of the event. Even as a sense of tension begins to emerge, the impending violence remains hidden from the reader as the characters remain rather calm during the drawing. 

This guise, however, disappears in the final moments of the story when it becomes clear that the same people who care about Tessie as a friend or family member intend to stone her to death. Her husband Bill, for example, seems to fit in to the peaceful nature of the village, but his character quickly shifts as he essentially condemns his wife to death by forcing her to reveal her marked slip of paper. The capacity for these characters to be both peaceful and violent becomes quite unsettling and ultimately invites the reader to reconsider their perception of the binary.