In a small village somewhere in the middle of America, people gather to draw slips in The Lottery. Old man Warner, who is something like the town patriarch, doesn’t approve of this modern abomination, but he isn’t about to change things. His hands shake as he picks up his ticket and reads off the numbers. As the others take turns drawing their slips, they chatter about rumors that other villages have stopped holding the lottery.
It is hard to know how many villagers are playing The Lottery, but the fact that they all do makes it a truly massive enterprise. Some of them are even buying tickets for their children, who are just as likely as their parents to be the next victim of ritual murder. This is no ordinary lottery, a contest that offers the possibility of wealth and even immortality to those who win.
The villagers’ blind acceptance of the lottery gives them the ability to kill at random. They are able to turn against someone with such speed and intensity that the victim is left without any protection or redress. Even her close friends and family are forced to participate in her persecution, and the villagers are united in their hatred because they all recognize her as the person who picked the wrong number.
Historically, lottery games have been a means of distributing money to the poor and indigent. But, as Cohen explains, by the nineteen-seventies the lottery had become an obsession of middle and upper-class Americans that coincided with a general decline in financial security. Income gaps widened, job security and pensions shrunk, health-care costs rose, and the long-standing national promise that education and hard work would make most people better off than their parents ceased to be true.
A lottery is a game in which prizes are allocated by chance, and the chances of winning a prize depend on the size of the pool of money that is contributed by participants. The pool of money may be divided into categories based on the type of prize (e.g., cash or goods), the number of participants, or the amount of money that each participant contributes to the pool.
In the seventeenth century, lotteries were common in the Low Countries, where they provided funds for town fortifications and charities for the poor. The name “lottery” probably derives from a combination of Middle Dutch lotte, meaning “casting lots,” and French loterie, the term for a state-sponsored game. In early America, lotteries were often tangled up with slavery—George Washington managed one that offered human beings as prizes, and Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery to purchase his freedom and foment a slave revolt.
It’s important to understand the way the odds of winning a lottery affect how much people are willing to play. If the odds are too high, people will stop playing, but if they are too low, the jackpots won’t grow. As a result, lottery commissions are constantly tweaking the odds in order to keep players hooked. This isn’t all that different from the strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.