What is a Lottery?

The story begins with a sense of ordinariness, with the narrator observing that the lottery is “just another civic activity along with square dances and teenage clubs and tax day.” The people participating seem to view it as an integral part of their community, as does the town itself.

Jackson’s portrayal of the villager’s adherence to tradition suggests a kind of social conformity in which people behave as though they are not aware of the evil in their midst. They eat and drink together, gossip, and handle each other without the slightest hint of ill will. As the lottery takes a dark turn, however, it becomes clear that the participants’ adherence to tradition is no shield against cruelty.

A lottery is a form of gambling wherein players have the chance to win a prize for drawing lots. Historically, public lotteries have been used to raise money for various purposes, including building town fortifications and helping the poor. The earliest known lotteries date back to the Low Countries of Europe in the 15th century, although records suggest that they were held earlier.

The term “lottery” may have been derived from the Dutch word lot, which itself is thought to be a calque of Middle Dutch lotinge “action of drawing lots”. In America, public lotteries began in 1776 as a way for states to generate funds without onerous taxes on the poor. Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to fund the purchase of cannons for Philadelphia, and George Washington sponsored a lottery to sell land and slaves in Virginia.