A lottery is a game in which participants pay a small sum to try to win a larger prize. The prize money can be money, goods or services. People in the United States spend upwards of $100 billion on lottery tickets every year, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. Many state governments use the lottery as a way to raise revenue. However, it is important to understand how much the lottery costs people and what the odds of winning are before deciding whether or not to play.
In the short story The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, details of contemporary small-town American life are embroidered upon a description of an annual ritual known as the lottery. This ritual, practiced to ensure a good harvest, takes place in a small village on June 27, when the town’s adults gather for the drawing. The villagers are nervous but excited, and Old Man Warner reminds them of an ancient proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
The first element of all lotteries is the drawing, a procedure for selecting winners. The tickets must be thoroughly mixed by some mechanical means, such as shaking or tossing; this is a randomizing process that assures that chance and only chance determine the selection of winners. Computers have increasingly come to be used for this purpose because they can quickly and accurately record the results of a lottery and produce new numbers or symbols for future drawing.
Next, the ticket sales must be pooled. This may be accomplished by a hierarchy of sales agents who pass money paid for the tickets up through the organization until it is “banked.” Once this is done, the total value of all tickets is determined by deducting the costs of organizing and promoting the lottery (which vary widely among jurisdictions) from the total number of tickets sold. The remaining pool is then available for the prize money, which is normally divided into a few large prizes and a great many smaller ones.
Finally, the resulting tickets are numbered and then placed in a box for the final drawing. Each family has one ticket. Bill and Tessie Hutchinson’s ticket is marked; the villagers take turns picking stones to throw at Tessie, who shouts that it isn’t fair. In this way, the villagers carry out their annual purging of evil from the community and prepare for the harvest.
The odds of winning the lottery are very low, but some people feel that it is a reasonable thing to do if they have the money to spare and believe they will somehow get rich. In reality, the average ticket holder wins nothing except a few minutes or hours or days to dream and imagine. For many people, that is enough value for them to continue buying tickets. The real message of the lottery is that it is a feeble attempt to gain control over their lives, which they cannot otherwise obtain, in a world in which they are all just numbers in a huge machine.