A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random for the purpose of awarding a prize. Prizes may take the form of cash or goods. Regardless of the format, it is common for the prize fund to represent a percentage of total receipts (profit for the promoter and costs of promotion) minus operating expenses. Often, prizes are based on the number of tickets sold rather than on a fixed amount. This allows for a more diverse array of possible winners and lowers the risk to the promoter.
While lotteries are a common way to raise funds for many purposes, they have also long been viewed as an immoral form of gambling. Because of this association, they have frequently been outlawed. However, since the end of World War II, when the story “The Lottery” takes place, a time of economic prosperity for the United States, lotteries have become increasingly popular and legal.
Modern lotteries take many forms, including those that award military conscription and commercial promotions in which property is given away randomly. Some of these are state-sponsored and others are private. Lottery laws vary widely among jurisdictions and include prohibitions on advertising, limiting the age of participants, and setting prize amounts. Some are governed by laws that require the purchase of a ticket for a chance to win, while others allow players to select their own numbers or symbols.
The word lottery derives from the Middle Dutch noun lotter or loterij, meaning the action of drawing lots, and the Old English verb lottare, which means to cast or to assign by lot. The latter probably is a compound of the elements lot and tier, the first meaning to cast or apportion. Lottery is a word that has been in use for centuries and is used throughout the world.
In the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, written in 1948 and set in Vermont, a small town holds a lottery once each year to determine who should be sacrificed so that crops will grow well. This is a very disturbing short story about how cruel people can be to one another, especially when they are motivated by tradition or social order.
The story is set in a small village after the end of World War II, a time when conformity was strong and there was little room for individuals to express dissenting opinions. Some villagers express their opposition to the lottery and its barbaric results. Ultimately, Tessie Hutchinson is stoned to death for her defiance of the custom and the lottery’s power over the lives of the villagers. Besides showing cruelty and violence, the story is also a reminder of how important it is to question custom and tradition when they are harmful or oppressive. The story can also be seen as a statement against anti-Semitism. Jackson, who was Jewish, had experienced this hatred in her own life. This may have influenced the story.