The History of the Lottery
In a lottery, people pay for tickets, draw a group of numbers (or have machines randomly spit them out), and then hope to win prizes ranging from a few hundred dollars to a big-money jackpot. People play for a variety of reasons: Some just enjoy the game, others believe that winning is their ticket to prosperity, and still more have faith in their own meritocracy, believing that they will eventually get a piece of the pie even if it doesn’t come from the top prize jar. The lottery is an integral part of our society, and it plays a major role in how the American economy works.
The earliest lotteries took place in ancient times. Moses was instructed to conduct a census of Israel and divide the land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves. In modern times, lotteries have become increasingly popular and are regulated by state law. They raise money for a wide range of projects and public services, including schools, roads, prisons, churches, and hospitals. Private lotteries can also raise large sums of money.
When the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson first appeared in 1913, it was widely interpreted as a warning about the perils of state-run lotteries. It depicts a small, unnamed village where a lottery is held on June 27. The villagers assemble in the town square, excited and anxious. The children arrive first, of course; Jackson states that they are always the first to assemble for this event and quotes an old saying: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
The adults eventually join them, and one by one the villagers draw slips from the box, with each one having an equal chance of being selected. Those chosen are then hunted down and killed by the other villagers, who scream and shout their names.
There are a number of things that make this scene so chilling and memorable. For one, the villagers do not seem to feel any guilt over what they are doing. They are acting in the name of tradition, but they also see themselves as a just and moral community.
It is easy to interpret the story as an allegory about human nature, especially in the way that it highlights the capacity of a society to engage in random violence against members of its own community. However, it is more likely that Jackson’s main point is to show how easily the lure of money can obscure a person’s sense of ethics and morality. The lottery’s popularity in recent years has been driven by its ability to raise money without enraging voters who are wary of raising taxes and cutting public services. This is a trend that Cohen suggests is likely to continue into the future. As such, it is important to understand the psychology of the lottery in order to assess its impact on society.