What is a Lottery?
A lottery is a system of giving away prizes (usually money) to people who pay a consideration, such as a ticket. It may or may not require skill to play, but it almost always involves some element of chance. Modern lotteries include those for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters. The term lottery is derived from the Old Dutch word lotte meaning “fate” or “luck.” Lotteries are very popular in many countries, and they contribute to state revenues in the United States.
In the short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson describes an eerie ritual in a small town in the summer. The people assemble for the lottery, and although it is a ritual, the townspeople do not seem to realize that they are taking part in something irrational and immoral. The children are the first to assemble, and their early arrival seems to confirm their innocence. The ritual is a metaphor for the irrational hope that someday someone will win the lottery, and that victory will bring them prosperity.
The word lottery dates back to the 15th century, and is thought to be derived from Middle Dutch loerie, or “lot drawing.” The practice was probably introduced to Europe by the Low Countries. Early public lotteries offered tickets for sale with cash prizes, and they raised money to help the poor, build town fortifications, and distribute property. Private lotteries were also popular in England and the United States. They were often advertised as a way to sell products and properties for more than what could be obtained in a regular sale. In addition, they were used as a method of raising money for various purposes such as building colleges (Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union and Brown).
While lotteries are not without their critics, it is difficult to imagine any government without them. In the immediate post-World War II period, a lot of states used the revenue generated by lotteries to expand their array of social services without onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. But that arrangement began to crumble as states struggled with inflation and increasing welfare costs.
While the people in this story do not understand why they are playing the lottery, it is clear to the writer that the lottery represents a scapegoat for the townspeople’s deep, inarticulate dissatisfaction with their lives. The lottery is an ideological mechanism that defuses the villagers’ anger at the victims of the social order, and gives them a sense of control over their futures. The villagers see Tessie as the victim of the lottery and a scapegoat for their own frustrations. This is why the people in this story are willing to sacrifice the child, even though they know that she will not win. The author of this short story makes it very clear that the lottery is an irrational, and even immoral, activity, but for the people who play it, it offers a measure of hope.