What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a form of gambling that involves drawing lots to determine winners. While the casting of lots has a long history (it was used to distribute property in the Bible, and Nero reportedly loved lotteries) it is only recently that people have begun using the practice for material gain. Modern lotteries can be found in many forms, from the selection of jury members to military conscription to commercial promotions in which property is given away. In the strict sense of the term, however, only those lotteries that involve payment for a chance to win are considered to be gambling.

Those who read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” may be surprised to learn that it is not simply about people trying to get rich. It is also about the nature of human evil. The events of the story are not merely shocking, but they are depicted in a way that suggests that humans are capable of doing any sort of bad thing in order to get what they want. The villagers are portrayed as friendly and kind before the lottery, but once they know who has won, they turn against the winner. Tessie Hutchinson, in particular, is one of the worst characters. She tries to justify her actions by saying that she wants the best for the village, but even this excuse is thrown out the window once she sees who has won.

The story starts with the villagers assembling for their annual lottery, which has been conducted for centuries and is based on an old proverb that says, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” But despite this ancient tradition, some of the villager’s have become tired of it. They are concerned that it is no longer a way to guarantee a bountiful harvest, and some have already stopped participating in the lottery. Other residents, however, are adamant that the lottery should continue.

For the most part, advocates of the lottery have argued that it is a painless source of state revenue. By allowing people to pay for the privilege of playing, they say, states can collect millions of dollars in profits that would otherwise be taxable. But as the lottery business grew, it became harder to sell the idea that lotteries were a silver bullet for state budgets. So advocates began to focus on arguing that the money from the lottery would go towards a specific line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan such as education, or elder care, or public parks.

This narrower argument made it easier to get voters on board with the lottery. In the nineteen-sixties, as the cost of the Vietnam War and inflation drove up government spending, many states found it hard to balance their budget without raising taxes or cutting services that were widely popular with voters. Thus, the lottery’s role as a source of tax revenue became increasingly important to both politicians and citizens. This dynamic remains at play today.