The Lottery by Jane Jackson

A lottery is an arrangement by which prizes are allocated to individual people in a manner that relies on chance. Almost every state has an official lottery, and the popularity of state-sponsored lotteries is such that most citizens play at least once in their lives. A central argument in the case for establishing state-sponsored lotteries has been that they are a form of painless taxation: citizens voluntarily spend their money on tickets, with the proceeds going to support government services. However, the fact that a large proportion of ticket purchasers are “super users” who spend 70 to 80 percent of their time playing has led many critics to argue that state lotteries rely on superusers for much of their revenue and thus should be regulated.

Most state-sponsored lotteries resemble traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a drawing to be held at a future date. A fraction of the money paid for each ticket is pooled to form the prize, with a percentage of the total amount of tickets sold being used for costs, promoting and administering the lottery, and as profits or tax revenues. The balance is then available for the winners. It is typical for the prize amounts to be in the millions of dollars, and ticket sales often increase dramatically for rollover drawings, but it is also possible to organize a lottery with very small prizes or even nothing at all.

Among the most interesting aspects of the short story The Lottery is the use of family themes to illustrate the role that blind obedience can play in societies organized around a sense of tradition. Jackson makes clear that her story is set in a patriarchal culture, with families constructed around adult men, and draws disconcerting parallels between this culture and more authoritarian nationalist cultures, such as Nazi Germany.

One of the major points that The Lottery demonstrates is that all cultures have a need to create scapegoats, and to persecute those whom they see as threats to their way of life. Tessie Hutchinson is the scapegoat in this story, and it is clear that her family members do not demonstrate any loyalty to her and will gladly sacrifice her for their own sense of tradition.

In addition to illustrating the role of scapegoats in society, The Lottery is an important example of how social institutions are subject to the same forces as all other human enterprises, and that they must constantly adapt to new challenges. This is certainly true of the lottery industry, which has experienced tremendous growth since the first state-sponsored lotteries were launched in the 1960s. Various innovations, such as scratch-off tickets, the rapid expansion of computerized ticket-selling systems, and new modes of play like online games have altered the shape of lotteries in ways that will likely continue to change them in the future.