The History of the Lottery

A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold, and prizes are given to the holders of numbers drawn at random. It is a common way for states to raise money. The lottery has a long record in human history, although making decisions or determining fates by casting lots is probably even older. Lotteries have been used to fund public projects such as canals, roads, and churches. In colonial America, lotteries raised money for colleges and to finance the British expedition against Canada. Today, state lotteries are very popular and profitable for governments and for the private businesses that sell tickets. They are also controversial because critics argue that they are addictive and exploitative, promote greed, and encourage racial discrimination.

Jackson’s story takes place in an unnamed small town, during a yearly lottery. The first paragraphs establish the bucolic setting, as children on summer break from school start to gather in the town square. As they do, they begin to sort themselves into nuclear families. Then, the narrator introduces Mr. Summers, the organizer of the lottery and master of ceremonies. He carries out a black wooden box, which the villagers respect because it is old and represents an ancient tradition.

The narrator describes the process of the lottery, explaining that a portion of the ticket sales goes to the costs of organizing and promoting it, and another percentage typically goes as revenues and profits to the state or sponsor. The remainder of the pool is available to the winners. The odds of winning are determined by the size of the prize and how many tickets are sold. Large prizes attract ticket buyers, but if the prize amounts are too low, interest in the lottery can decline.