In the seventeenth century, lotteries were quite common in the Low Countries and throughout Europe, where they were used to raise money for a variety of purposes, including town fortifications and helping the poor. Lotteries were also popular in Roman times-Nero was a big fan-and appear frequently in the Bible, where lots are cast for everything from who gets to keep Jesus’ clothes after His Crucifixion to the selection of kings and judges.
Lotteries are a great way for states to make revenue, especially in an era when many middle and working class families were struggling financially. They were also, as Cohen observes, a convenient solution for politicians who wanted to maintain the services of government but couldn’t raise taxes without angering an antitax electorate. “Lotteries were budgetary miracles, a chance for states to make hundreds of millions of dollars appear out of nowhere,” he writes.
The lottery became even more popular in the nineteen seventies and eighties as income gaps widened, pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and unemployment skyrocketed. In that era of rising inequality and declining financial security, Americans dreamed of winning the lottery’s biggest prize, the kind of sum that could transform their lives.
The villagers in Jackson’s story are all very well-meaning, and most of them are not the most enlightened of people, but they are determined to hold onto their lottery tradition for all eternity. They are willing to sacrifice the lives of those who don’t want to participate in the lottery, much like they sacrificed the life of Tessie, the only person to not follow their traditions.