The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a huge business, generating billions of dollars annually. Most of the money is spent on prizes, and a small percentage goes to state governments for things like education. But it is not a transparent tax, and consumers aren’t always clear on how much of the ticket price they’re paying to the government. It’s a lot like the tactics of tobacco companies or video-game makers, and it isn’t exactly unique to the lottery industry.

The story of the lottery in Shirley Jackson’s short piece takes place in a small, rural American town, where traditions and customs dominate. The villagers, like the people in the story, treat each other with hypocrisy and greed, but they do so in a warm setting that suggests human evil is just part of the world around us. Jackson shows that we all have a deep deceitfulness inside, which can be exploited in many ways.

Lotteries have a long history, beginning in the Roman Empire (Nero liked them) and attested to in the Bible, where casting lots was used for everything from determining Jesus’ fate after the Crucifixion to deciding who would get to keep the garments of the king. They became more popular in the seventeenth century, when European states began to organize them for a wide range of purposes. The word “lottery” is believed to be a calque on Middle Dutch loterie, meaning the action of drawing lots; the oldest-running lottery in the world is in the Netherlands, called Staatsloterij.