A lottery is a type of gambling that involves drawing numbers to determine winners and losers. Although many people associate lotteries with gambling, some of the proceeds are used for public good. Some examples include military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away through a random process, and the selection of jury members. In a strict sense, however, only those who pay for the chance to win are engaged in gambling. This distinction is the basis for some legal differences between gambling and non-gambling lottery arrangements.
The word lottery comes from Middle Dutch loterie and Old English lotinge, which both translate as “action of drawing lots.” Early examples of the activity can be found in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders where towns were attempting to raise funds to fortify their defenses or aid the poor. Francis I of France authorized the first European state-sponsored lotteries in a number of cities between 1520 and 1539. Private lotteries were common in England and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries as a way to sell goods or real estate for more money than could be obtained from a regular sale. These arrangements were criticized by those who saw them as addictive and immoral, but they were also a popular source of public funding for projects such as the construction of the British Museum, the repair of bridges, and several American colleges including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and the University of Pennsylvania.
In the modern era, state-sponsored lotteries have become very common. New Hampshire initiated the practice in 1964, and other states soon followed. Lotteries are defended by supporters who argue that they provide a source of “painless” revenue, a term which refers to taxpayers who voluntarily spend their money in order to help fund state government programs. This argument is particularly persuasive during times of economic stress, when voters fear tax increases or cuts in government spending. Studies have shown, however, that the popularity of a lottery is not correlated with the actual fiscal health of its adopting state.
Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a cautionary tale about the nature of modern capitalist hierarchy. Summers, the village postmaster who holds the lottery, embodies this hierarchy. He is a confident, well-paid businessman who believes that his power and position in the community will never be challenged. Despite his wealth and power, however, Summers is unable to avoid the consequences of his actions. Ultimately, his life and the lives of those around him are ruined by the lottery. The story underscores the importance of characterization methods in literature, as demonstrated by Jackson’s use of actions and setting. Using these techniques, Jackson is able to show that even the most prosperous and seemingly successful individuals have hidden motives that can lead to tragedy.