The lottery is a type of gambling in which players try to win a prize by matching numbers. It is usually played for money, though some games offer goods or services as prizes. It is very popular in many countries, and there are a lot of different types of lottery. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for towns and poor people. They were not illegal, but were discouraged by church leaders. The European settlement of America was partially financed through lotteries, and they became common in the colonies themselves, despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Lottery proceeds helped finance roads, wharves, bridges, schools and other public works. Lottery also played a large role in financing the American Revolution and the French and Indian Wars, and provided funds for private ventures such as building colleges and universities.
In the short story, “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson presents a small-town American lottery that seems to be a pleasant and harmless way for the villagers to enjoy themselves, but is in reality a cruel form of scapegoating. By stoning someone every year, the townspeople purge themselves of bad behavior and make room for good. This is a metaphor for society’s need to get rid of ill and immoral behavior in order to function properly.
It is a warm summer day in June, and the town is preparing for its annual lottery. Children pile up stones as the adults gather, and an old man quotes an old folk song: “Lottery in June—corn be heavy soon.” The lotteries were once common throughout the United States, but they fell out of favor during the nineteen-sixties when state funding began to dwindle. State governments faced a choice: increase taxes or cut programs, which would be unpopular with voters.
During the planning for the lottery, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves compile a list of all the heads of families in town and their tickets, which are all blank except one marked with a black dot. The tickets are folded and placed in a box that Mr. Summers keeps in his office. The head of each family draws a ticket, and if theirs is the marked one, they must draw again for another slip.
The lottery is a fascinating game for people who believe in luck and are willing to take a chance. These are the sort of people who quote aphorisms like “Sometimes you have to gamble it all” and talk about their favorite lucky numbers and stores, times of the day to buy tickets, and so on. These folks know that their chances of winning are slim to none, but they persist in playing the game because the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits outweigh the disutility of a potential monetary loss. This is the psychological mechanism that drives lottery participation. It can lead to an enormous amount of waste in the long run, but it can be overcome if state officials have the courage to take on this problem.