The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which numbered tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize. The word comes from the biblical instruction for Moses to divide the land of Israel by lot, and it was also used by Roman emperors to give away property and slaves. The first European public lotteries in the modern sense of the term appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, where towns tried to raise money for defending their towns or helping the poor. They were eventually brought to America by British colonists, and they played an important role in bringing infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, canals, churches, schools, and colleges to the colonies.

In Shirley Jackson’s short story, the lottery takes place in a small, isolated American village. It is just another activity among the villagers, alongside square dances, teenage clubs, and Halloween programs, run by Mr. Summers, the local minister. In a town where the men work hard and pay taxes, the lottery is just an opportunity to win some extra income and improve one’s standard of living.

But, there is a dark underbelly to this arrangement—as anyone who has ever purchased a lottery ticket knows all too well. It’s not just that people have an inextricable urge to gamble, though; it is that they feel like the lottery dangles the possibility of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. Moreover, state lotteries seem to be selling the idea that purchasing a ticket is something everyone ought to do as part of their civic duty to support their state’s taxation system.