The Lottery by Shirley Jackson


In The Lottery, Shirley Jackson demonstrates the power of tradition to derail rational people and to impose atrocities on those who follow their rules. The author’s characterization methods include dialogue, actions and setting. The story takes place in a community of villagers, who live by strict rules and believe that luck and fate play a huge role in their lives. The characters’ attitudes, behaviors and beliefs are shaped by these traditions. The story shows how the villagers are so indoctrinated by tradition that their minds are trapped and can’t think clearly.

Lottery is an ancient pastime; the casting of lots has been used for everything from selecting a king to divining God’s will. It’s also a popular way to raise money for state projects. In early America, states were short on taxes but long on public needs; the lottery was an easy and popular solution.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery’s rise began in the nineteen-sixties, when the growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Inflating population and soaring inflation combined with the cost of the Vietnam War and a rapidly aging populace meant that raising tax rates or cutting services would be unpopular, so states turned to the lottery.

As the lottery’s popularity grew, odds began to decrease. The smaller the odds, the higher the demand. Commissioners responded by lifting prize caps and adding more numbers to the drawing, which in turn lowered the odds of winning even further. Odds of winning in the New York State Lottery, for example, went from one-in-three-million to one-in-three-hundred-million, and sales continued to climb.

To promote the game, lottery marketers shifted their message away from the idea that it was a “tax on the stupid.” They emphasized that playing the lottery could provide entertainment value or other non-monetary benefits, and they promoted it in communities where wealthier residents tended to play less often. They also argued that legalizing the lottery would float a line item in a state’s budget—often education, but sometimes elder care or public parks—and claimed that a vote for it was a vote against raising taxes or cutting public services.

But this is a false narrative. As Cohen has shown, the reality is that most people who buy tickets do so because they want to win, and winning can leave them worse off than before. Lottery plays are highly correlated with economic fluctuation, and sales spike when incomes fall or unemployment rises. In addition, the marketing of lottery products is heavily concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, where the players are disproportionately black and Latino. The bottom line is that the lottery is a regressive tax on the dumb.