The lottery: suspense, suspense, surprise

Prof’s The Lottery: Suspense, Suspense, Surprise. “ The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is a more dense story than it first appears – a second or third reading will reward readers greatly, even if the surprise ending has already been spoiled. Yet for all of its density, this story has one purpose and one purpose only: suspense. It raises emotional arousal in its readers again and again till that arousal is almost at its breaking point, then unleashes it in an incredible torrent of emotion. The title, the symbolism, and the characters all heighten the growing sense of suspense within the story, before its remarkable climax.
The title sets the stage for the growing suspense throughout the story. The idea of a “ Lottery” creates expectation (Jackson, 1), as lotteries are associated with huge outbursts of exuberance and emotion. The audience is, from the title alone, expecting a surprising event that will have a great deal of impact on the participants of the story. The expectation of the reader is probably that the surprising event will be positive – “ lottery,” in the traditional sense, is associated with a windfall. This positive sentiment adds to the growth of suspense, because it adds a high from which to fall – a neutral moving to a negative is not as strong as a positive moving to a negative.
While the title of the story tells the reader something exciting and explosive will happen, the symbolism gives the first hints to the reader that that something will be dark and dangerous. The first of these symbols are the “ stones” that the village boys gather – stones being the crudest and oldest tools, and also associated with murder since before the time of Christ (Jackson 2). The “ black box” that the lottery is held in also serves as a symbol of death (Jackson 5), black being a common color for death and boxes having intense association with coffins. These symbols give the first clues that the surprise of the lottery will not be positive, as one would usually suspect, but in fact very dark.
Characters add to the growing suspense in a variety of ways. Firstly, some of their names seem to have value in foreshadowing the conclusion of the story. The Delacroixs, for instance, have particular attention drawn to their name, including an explanation of the pronunciation (Jackson 2). Delacroix of course means “ of the cross” – a reference to the most well known of human sacrifices in Western society, the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of humanity. This, along with the worried talk of some of the characters, especially Tessie Hutchinson once the ballots were drawn, builds the suspense to its highest peak before the climax of the story.
Almost every single literary device in “ The Lottery” serves a single purpose: to heighten the suspense so that the eventual climax has the most emotional impact that is possible. The characters, their names and actions, the symbolism and the title of the story all serve this same goal.
Jackson, Shirley. “ The Lottery” The New Yorker. 26 June 1948.