Group mentality in Jackson’s “the lottery”

Social scientists have spent years studying issues related to human behavior.  Many researchers have noticed that group behavior seems increasingly odd as individuals conform to the group.  In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the group mentality allows for the stunning acceptance of senseless violence that the story describes.

            The story’s impact depends on the irony fond within its pages.  This irony begins in the very beginning of the story when the author describes the beauty of the day:  “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green” (Jackson).  This beautiful description is juxtaposed to the slowly developing knowledge of what comes next.  In the words of Patrick Shields “This setting, however, conveys an atmosphere which is deceptive since this pleasant summer gathering will sharply change and eventually lead to ritual murder. Jackson uses this

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atmosphere to increase the irony of the story” (411).  Ironically, behind the idyllic picture of this town lies a horrifying secret.

            Clearly the title of Jackson’s story is important to this ironic theme.  Many people feel that an execution is dealt for a specific crime committed.  However, in “The Lottery,” Jackson uses the title to reinforce the randomness of the application of the sentence.  Shields notes that “The title Jackson has chosen for her story reinforces the underlying meaning. Our lives, in many instances, are subject to fate or chance” (413).  Of course, this is again ironically juxtaposed to the impressions of the town folks. They view this day of the lottery as the culminating ritual of their existence. Mr. Summers was in charge of the rituals and the assembly of individuals follows the generally prescribed pattern, give or take, of many, many years.

            It is exactly the group of townspeople that give life to this ritual.  Shields explains this idea of group mentality. “Ritual executions involve notions of ritual pollution and ritual purification. The end result is thought to have been a type of ritual cleansing through the execution of the accused. The villagers in Jackson’s story see this as being accomplished through

their annual event…” (414). They are attempting to keep the town ‘cleansed’ and free from evil by continuing this annual lottery.  Griffin explains that “by transferring one’s sins to persons or animals and then sacrificing them, people believed that their sins would be eliminated” (44).  Thus, ritual is need to keep everyone spiritually and even physically safe.  Unfortunately, the group has forgotten the origin of the lottery and even the point of it.  As a result, the people are now blindly following the tradition without any understanding of what it means.

            This mentality means that each individual person is not responsible for the decision.  Everyone else is culpable, but not only one person.  This is a powerful reason to continue because nobody can be individually blamed.  Shields sums this important theme up in the following manner:

The group experience then lowers the level of consciousness. Therefore, the base actions exhibited in groups, such as the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson, do not take place on an individual level, for here such actions would be deemed ‘murder.’ On the group level, people classify their heinous act simply as “ritual.” Although civilized people may no longer hold lotteries, Jackson’s story illustrates society’s tendency toward violence and its tendency to hold onto tradition, even meaningless, base tradition, revealing our need for both ritual and belonging


However, that does not mean that others do not necessarily attempt to buck the system and attempt to instill change.

A bit of dialogue from the story reveals this tendency when a few members of the group do mention that some towns are letting the lottery go.  “They do say, Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery” (Jackson).  One of the firm believers in the tradition notes again “There’s always been a lottery” (Jackson).

This begins the division that sometimes plagues these types of society.  Some members cling to the tradition just because it is a tradition and others send out tentacles for change.  Only when the worst case scenario arises do some of the villagers begin to feel uneasy.  Perhaps this speaks to their sense of fairness.  It certainly speaks to the readers sense.  “What appears to shock the reader may be the notion of the inherent unfairness of the act, since it involves the killing of an innocent victim. But beyond this, the arbitrary nature of the selection process of who is to be executed haunts us and leaves us with feelings of uneasiness” (Shields 415).  The reader might think that this applies to the townspeople as well, and for a while it does.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s message concerning humanity is grim.  The unfairness of the lottery does not mask their willingness to carry it to its deadly conclusion. “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (Jackson).   They are not ready to give up the lottery, the ritual, because it preserves their own sense of innocence.  Yet the reader can see what the characters cannot.  They can see that the ironic elements of the story reveal the reality that evil can happen anywhere, that nobody is safe. Yarmove notes “that despite ‘it couldn’t happen here,’ a microcosmal holocaust occurs in this story and, by extension, may happen anyplace in contemporary America” (242).

Because nobody is safe, the ritual must go on. The irony is that the group is trading one person as a scapegoat for all others. While seemingly archaic and ignorant, the process continues.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

Works Cited

Griffin, Amy. Jackson’s The Lottery. Explicator 58 (1), 1999: 44-46

Jackson, Shirley.  “The Lottery.”   Retrieved 26 June 2007 from   

Shields, Patrick J. “Arbitrary Condemnation and Sanctioned Violence in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The             Lottery’.” Contemporary Justice Review 7 (4), 2004: 411-419.

Yarmove, Jay A.  “Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’.” Explicator 52 (4), 1994: 242-245

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Group mentality in Jackson’s “the lottery”. (2016, Dec 19). Retrieved from