The lottery is an event in which participants pay a small amount of money to have a chance at winning a prize of greater value. The prizes are usually cash, but can also be goods or services. People participate in the lottery to try to win things that they may not have a good chance of getting through other means, such as applying for admission to a college or to a job, obtaining a passport, and so on. Unlike gambling, the lottery is generally run as an unbiased process; for example, each applicant receives the same number of chances to win each time he or she applies.
In the story, a lottery is held in an unnamed American village. The villagers are enthusiastic about the event, and Old Man Warner quotes an ancient proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” One family, however, is less pleased with the lottery. Bill and Tessie have purchased tickets, but the ticket for their family is marked with a black dot. The other tickets are blank, and Tessie believes that her marked ticket is the best for them.
As a result, she becomes infuriated and screams that the lottery is unfair. The villagers respond by stoning her, and Tessie dies as the stones rain down. The family has a great deal of guilt over the death, but Bill and Mr. Summers insist that the lottery is an important ritual for the town, a way to ensure that the crops are bountiful.
Lotteries have a long history in Europe and the United States. They were first used as a method of raising funds for public works, and they were popular among Roman citizens who wanted to win prizes such as fine dinnerware. They also were used at public dinners as a form of entertainment, and some of the earliest recorded lotteries were drawn to raise funds for repairs in Rome.
In modern times, state governments have increasingly turned to lotteries as a way of raising revenue without burdening working-class taxpayers with especially onerous taxes. Lotteries have replaced sin taxes, such as those on tobacco and alcohol, on the rationalization that gambling does not have as harmful a social impact as these other vices do.
State lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction; everything about the marketing of their games—including the design of their tickets and their advertising campaigns—is designed to keep players buying more and more tickets. Despite their regressive nature, many people play the lottery regularly. Some even buy multiple tickets at a time. This is not necessarily because they are irrational, but rather because they like the feeling of winning and the excitement of scratching the ticket. Regardless, this is not an arrangement that is going to endure for very long. The regressive character of lotteries is bound to attract criticism as the costs of government increase and more Americans come to realize that they cannot afford what they once took for granted.