Herd Behavior in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

Table of Contents


The story innocently titled “The Lottery,” written by Shirley Jackson would be generally expected to have a positive theme. However, the plot narrates the events of the annual lottery, which takes place in the most ordinary setting of a small village (more specifically in its main square). The purpose is to choose a winner who will be excluded from the community as the members of it will cold-bloodedly murder the selected person. The three literary elements present in “The Lottery” are theme, ironic symbolism, and setting. This paper aims to examine these components and analyze the approach through which the author applies them in the narration.

Literary Elements

The first element that Jackson uses in the story is the general theme of the plot – herd behavior. “The Lottery” reveals the characteristics of mass mentality in a crowd setting, which is the essential component of the narrative. It is crucial to examine the theme in regards to the environment the author describes as the two are directly interrelated. The lottery is drawn in the same place each year, displaying the value and inviolability of traditions by the community making its views on the world rather stagnant regardless of the development. Ironically, Old Man Warner, the oldest character in the story, sees the desire to abandon this barbaric tradition as an inclination of a return to old age. It is clearly illustrated in his objection: “listening to the young folks, nothing’s good for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while” (Jackson 412). Any violation of rules is considered wrong and unacceptable by characters, which demonstrates both unity and unjustified conformism.

Secondly, ironic symbolism is present throughout the narration. Taking into consideration the year 1948 that the story was written in, the author’s connection to behavior templates peculiar to the Second World War time becomes evident. Being instructed by the chosen leader, Mr. Summers, the crowd does not dare question the tradition nor the adequacy of his actions. Describing the events Jackson writes that “the people had done it so many times that they only half listened to the directions: most of them were quiet” (415). Therefore, there is a strong reference to Hitler’s unjustified activities taken against innocent Jews, as in both cases everything is under the control of the leader. Such ironical symbolism intensifies the absurdity of the situation regarding herd mentality and demonstrates the lack of reasonable analysis when it comes to mass mentality.

Finally, the element worth considering is the setting that Jackson uses in her story, the main village square. It is a strange place for such an event as the lottery on a bright summer day will turn into crowd murder. The story becomes more sinister as the tension increases among participants who instead of being excited to win the lottery, turn more nervous as the time of opening paper slips approaches. Thus, the reader can imagine a sunny day when all the village inhabitants gather on the main square, children are happy to be free from school, and there comes a fateful moment with “a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers, holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows” (Jackson 413). It is surprising how in the very ordinary conditions, with everyone understanding the fatality of the ongoing, there is not a soul objecting to its absurdity except for the winner of the lottery.


Overall, in the story “The Lottery” Jackson presents a narration of ordinary events with a strange ending – the village lottery that ends in murder. The paper examined the three main literary elements that help the author reveal the central idea of the plot – theme, ironic symbolism, and setting. The three help illustrate the narration and provide an understanding of the absurdity of herd behavior and its dangers.

Work Cited

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by Robert DiYanni, McGraw Hill, 2008, pp. 409-415.