The Lottery


Lottery, in the sense of an organized and public award of prizes based on chance, first appeared in Europe in the 15th century when towns in Burgundy and Flanders began holding lottery-like events to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. In these early drawings, prizes were generally in the form of money but some prizes may have been lands, animals, or goods.

Several modern lotteries are state-regulated, and most have a centralized system for recording and verifying ticket purchases. The bettor usually writes his name on the ticket and encloses it with his stake, which is then shuffled and deposited for drawing. A computer system records each bettor’s numbers or symbols, and the prize pool is selected according to predetermined rules. In most lotteries, the amount of prize money is relatively large, but it must be subsidized by costs for promotion and taxes or other revenues.

In the United States, the modern era of state-regulated lotteries began with New Hampshire’s establishment of a lottery in 1964, and 37 states now operate lotteries. Lottery revenues have been used to finance numerous public and private projects, including highways, airports, and schools. Lottery players include convenience store owners (who are the primary sales outlets for tickets); suppliers (with hefty contributions to state political campaigns reported); teachers, in those states that earmark lottery revenues for education; and the general public, with more than 60% of adults reporting playing the lottery at least once a year.

The popularity of the lottery as a way to win money has also created some controversy. Critics accuse it of promoting addictive gambling behavior and imposing a regressive tax on low-income households, while supporters point to its success in raising revenue and promoting civic projects.

Shirley Jackson’s eerie short story “The Lottery” (first published in 1948 in The New Yorker) inspired some of the strongest letters the magazine has ever received, and many readers are still puzzled by its chilling message. Jackson drew on her studies in folklore (she once cited James George Frazer’s Golden Bough and Brand’s Popular Antiquities as influential courses she had taken) when writing the story, which is about an ancient rite that awards death as its top prize.

In the story, a group of villagers hold a lottery in which a man’s life is at stake. While it is important to keep traditions alive, the narrator says, people should not be willing to kill each other to do so. The narrator is also troubled by the way the winner of the lottery was selected. If the lottery is truly random, he argues, it should not be unfair to kill someone just because they are the winner. He wants to change the lottery, but others are against it. In the end, the narrator decides that the lottery is not worth killing for. It was not a good idea anyway. Besides, he explains, “Life’s a lottery anyhow.” It is what you make of it.