A lottery is a game in which participants pay a small sum of money for the chance to win a prize (usually a cash prize) by matching a set of numbers drawn at random. The majority of states in the United States run a lottery, and many have several different games to choose from. Often, players must select six numbers from a range of one to fifty, and prizes are awarded depending on the percentage of the correct number matches. Modern lotteries usually allow players to choose to have a computer automatically pick the numbers for them, and there may be an option on the playslip for this.
In early America, people used lotteries to win a variety of things, including land and even human beings. They were popular despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling. George Washington managed a lottery that offered the opportunity to win slaves; and a formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, purchased his freedom through a lottery in South Carolina and went on to foment a slave rebellion.
In this story, Shirley Jackson shows the way in which lottery behavior can turn against its practitioners. Her story is a warning that compulsive gambling can degenerate into an all-consuming obsession. It also shows how an isolated, small-town environment can encourage the kind of twisted behavior that leads to terrible consequences. The story is also a criticism of democracy; it shows that just because the majority supports something does not make it right, and that sometimes the wrong thing is popular.