The Point of View in "The Lottery"

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" uses the third-person dramatic point of view to tell a story about an un-named village that celebrates a wicked, annual event. The narrator in the story gives many small details of the lottery taking place, but leaves the most crucial and chilling detail until the end: the winner of the lottery is stoned to death by the other villagers. The use of the third-person point of view, with just a few cases of third-person omniscient thrown in, is an effective way of telling this ironic tale, both because the narrator's reporter-like blandness parallels the villagers' apparent apathy to the lottery, and because it helps build to the surprise ending by giving away bits of information to the reader through the actions and discussions of the villagers without giving away the final twist.

"The Lottery" is primarily told in the third-person dramatic point of view, but on occasion the narrator becomes omniscient to divulge information to the reader that which is commonly known to the villagers. In paragraph 7, for example, the narrator states, "...at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort...". Also, in paragraph 13, the narrator says, "Although Mr. Summers and everyone else in the village knew the answer perfectly well ...". This limited use of omniscience does not detract from the story, and is used sparingly and effectively to inform the reader of minor details that don't need to be belabored.

It is the matter-of-fact tone and benign cadence of the narrator that sets the atmosphere for this story, and matches perfectly with the perfunctory attitude the villagers have toward the lottery. The narrator is going about his or her business -- explaining details, recording conversations, revealing the history of the lottery -- while the villagers are going on with the routine business of the lottery. This banality lulls the reader into a lowered sense of expectation, while the story slowly builds to the climax.

Shirley Jackson's use of the third-person dramatic point of view, and the way her narrator sometimes uses minute details, such as the construction and history of the lottery box, allows her to introduce to the reader important hints to the ending without telegraphing it. For example, in only the second paragraph, the narrator observes, "Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones...". These stones are to be used to kill a person by story's end, but the information is delivered so plainly and amidst other less meaningful details that it slips under the reader's radar. Also, since the villagers' thoughts aren't revealed, the reader slowly learns through the villagers' dialogue that this lottery isn't one anybody wants to win. The exact reason why, however, is not revealed until the end.

The third-person dramatic point of view is used in this story for effect. If told from any other way, say the first-person from Mrs. Hutchinson's point of view, the narrator would have had to explain how Mrs. Hutchinson felt about the lottery, and the dramatic punch of the ending would have been lost. The third-person dramatic point of view allows the reader to follow the story as it develops, anticipating the conclusion based only on the actions and dialogue of the characters, and the deadpan and ambivalent narrator enhances the final punch.

By Matthew R. King

Work Cited

Jackson, Shirley. "The Lottery". An Introduction to Literature, 11th ed. Ed. Barnet, Sylvan, et al. 335-341.

 

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