The Lottery and Its Darker Implications

In a lottery, a person pays a small amount of money for the chance to win a prize that may be cash or goods. A person who wins a prize usually has the option to receive it in one lump sum or in an annuity, with the latter typically having a time value lower than the advertised jackpot (due to income taxes). Lotteries are commonplace worldwide.

The first modern state lotteries appeared in the Low Countries of Belgium and Flanders during the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications or to help the poor. The word “lottery” is probably derived from the Dutch word löytje (“drawing lot”) or its French form, loterie, and it may be a calque on Middle English lotinge, meaning the action of drawing lots.

Early lottery games were little more than traditional raffles, with ticket holders waiting to attend a drawing for a prize weeks or even months in the future. By the 1970s, however, many states had begun to offer instant games in the form of scratch-off tickets. These are sold at convenience stores and other venues, with the prizes often being 10s or 100s of dollars. They have lower odds of winning than the standard draw, but they are still more lucrative than the annuity payments offered by most lottery winners.

In some ways, Jackson’s scene with Tessie Hutchinson at the lottery illustrates both the appeal of the lottery and its darker implications. The lottery is a way to distract from an individual’s deep, inarticulate dissatisfaction with the social order that he or she inhabits, and the lottery offers its victims a false sense of hope for a better life through the acquisition of material wealth.