The lottery is a familiar feature of American life, with people spending upward of $100 billion on tickets in 2021. It is the most popular form of gambling, and states promote it as a painless way to raise money for a variety of purposes. But it isn’t entirely benign, and the ways in which it manipulates players deserves scrutiny.
The word lottery is probably derived from the Dutch noun “lot” (fate or destiny), but the history of the practice stretches back centuries before that. It was common in the Low Countries in the 15th century to organize public lotteries for a wide range of purposes, including town fortifications and to help the poor. It then spread to England, where it was promoted as a tax-free alternative to dice and playing cards, which were forbidden in most homes.
In modern times, there are many different types of lottery, from the charitable games that award prizes to veterans and members of the military who meet certain criteria to commercial promotions in which property is given away by chance. There are even state-sponsored lotteries, where a percentage of the proceeds from ticket sales goes to the prize fund. But the classic definition of a lottery is a game in which a prize, usually a cash sum, is offered for the right to draw a number or symbols representing the winning entries.
Throughout history, lotteries have played an important role in a number of different contexts, from the dividing of land among Israel’s ancient inhabitants to the selection of slaves and slaveholders by Roman emperors. They are also well documented in biblical texts, including the admonition that “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (Proverbs 23:5) and the instructions for determining the winner of a Hebrew kingship by drawing lots (Numbers 16).
It may seem counterintuitive, but the odds of winning a prize in a lottery increase with the size of the prize. The lower the odds, the less likely a person is to win, and the more it will cost to participate. This is why the average jackpot grows so much, and it is why it is so tempting for lottery participants to spend more money to improve their chances of winning.
In Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, the lottery is used to punish a member of the community for committing a crime. It is a perfect example of how the use of a manipulated setting can reveal human evil and hypocrisy. The events of this story take place in a small rural village and reveal the importance of tradition in society. How does the environment influence people’s behavior? Why do some people act cruelly towards others in a mob? How does the story of The Lottery relate to mob psychology and society? Explore these questions and more as you read this short story.