‘The Lottery in Babylon’, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges first published in 1941, is among his most ‘Kafkaesque’ tales, bearing the influence of the Czech writer in a number of its key aspects. At the time, Borges was working a rather unfulfilling library job refilling the bookshelves, and ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ reflects the sense of futility in all human endeavour which Borges was feeling at this time. But what does this story mean?
You can read ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Lottery in Babylon’: summary
Borges’ narrator tells us about a lottery in the country of Babylon (the namesake of the ancient Middle-Eastern region but, we assume, a distinct and fictional country) which began centuries ago. Back then, people would enter the lottery by paying a copper coin, in the hope of winning silver coins in return.
But the lottery soon developed into something more, because it was only partially successful in its early form. To make it more appealing to human nature, people entering the lottery might either win a nice prize or incur a fine. Why would this make the lottery more appealing? Because people did not want to appear cowardly by failing to enter it (because they feared incurring a fine), so peer pressure led to more people paying to take part.
In time, the mysterious Company which runs the lottery replaced the fine with imprisonment. Those who had bought one of the unlucky tickets would go to jail, simply for having the wrong ticket that had been drawn at random. Soon, other punishments were introduced.
But the lower classes, who could not afford to pay to enter the lottery on a regular basis, demanded the right to be entered into it. The narrator states that the turning point was when a slave, without any money of his own, stole someone’s lottery ticket, which just so happened to be one of the unlucky tickets to be drawn, carrying the ‘prize’ of having one’s tongue burned. By chance, the law of the land also stated that having one’s tongue burned was the punishment for stealing a lottery ticket. The people of Babylon saw this as a sign that the lottery wasn’t as random as it appeared to be, and they won their right to be automatically entered into the lottery.
The Company which ran the lottery became, in a sense, the state, because it had power over every single citizen, as everyone was a participant in its lottery. The extremes between nice prizes and nasty surprises, as it were, became more pronounced: at one end, a lucky winner might be promoted to a high office in Babylon, while at the other end, they might be killed.
However, this led more people to believe that the outcomes were merely random, and not necessarily tied to the lottery. Someone might die and it be a coincidence that they had drawn an ‘unlucky’ ticket bearing that fate. So the Company launched a propaganda campaign to convince the population that they, the Company, controlled everything. People started to believe it was so, and that even random chance was somehow controlled by the Company. And the Company, in turn, realised that the people had given them permission to take over control of every aspect of daily life. The number of drawings in the lottery, which determined every outcome of every citizen in Babylon, became ‘infinite’.
What happens, then, is that the lottery becomes the same as ‘life’: the lottery supposedly determines everything, even the ‘errors’ and discrepancies found in books (even between copies of the same book). Creating and spreading falsehoods is actively encouraged. Indeed, it even becomes possible that the Company no longer exists and that everything that has happened since its dissolution is just genuine random chance. By contrast, it is possible that the Company is more powerful than ever and controls everything.
‘The Lottery in Babylon’: analysis
Rex Butler, in a persuasive analysis of ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ in Borges’ Short Stories: A Reader’s Guide (A Reader’s Guides), describes this story as an allegory of totalitarianism. We should bear in mind that the Second World War was raging when Borges wrote the story, with fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism all on the rise; there was also political upheaval in Borges’ home country of Argentina.
But he also points out that it is the people of Babylon who encourage the Company to take over every aspect of their daily lives; this has been interpreted as a reflection of Borges’ (reputed) belief that the Argentinian people were not ready for democracy when Borges wrote ‘The Lottery in Babylon’.
So, rather than just being a story about totalitarian political power, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ invites us to ask important questions about human agency. Even setting aside totalitarian regimes, how much control do we have over our lives? And those things which we don’t have control over: are they merely the result of random chance, or is someone else pulling the strings?
But even to restrict an analysis of ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ to the political is to do the story a disservice. For it is also about the human instinct to see things as more than mere blind chance, to attribute a guiding hand or a controlling force to events which are in actual fact the result of mere coincidence. A death from natural causes becomes impossible in Babylon, because the Company ‘must’ be behind all things. Even nature itself, such as the number of grains of sand on a beach, is supposedly controlled by the Company through its lottery.
We humans don’t tend to like random chance: we want there to be a reason for things that happen. If we experience good fortune, we want to believe it is because we did something to deserve it: perhaps it’s karma paying us back for some good deed we did, or perhaps our hard work and diligence paid off and we’re now being rewarded, however indirectly. Similarly, if something terrible happens, we don’t want to believe it was just bad luck, but that someone was responsible, someone who perhaps, we feel, needs to be held to account. We like to look for patterns, but we are also hard-wired to believe that everything happens ‘for a reason’.
Needless to say, we don’t have to look too hard to see a religious allegory in ‘The Lottery in Babylon’. Things that just happen aren’t allowed to be arbitrary or random: people need to attribute them to something bigger, some powerful force that controls things. In religion, it is a god or gods; in Babylon, it is the mysterious Company, which we could easily read as an allegory for either totalitarian political regimes or theocracies.
But there’s more to it than that. For in Borges’ story, although the Company controls everything, who wins or who loses in a lottery (or who really ‘loses’ in the Lottery in Babylon, i.e., incurs a heavy penalty or punishment) is down to chance. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a true lottery, which has to be random. It is, to use the correct adjective, aleatory: pertaining to chance. So, at the heart of ‘The Lottery in Babylon’, we have a recurring Borgesian trope: the paradox.
The outcome of the lottery must be random, but entry into the lottery is compulsory, suggesting that every aspect of everyone’s life is being controlled. Another prominent Borgesian theme, that of the infinite, comes into play as the Company extends its power and determines everything through the lottery: the number of drawings becomes truly infinite.
Image: by Adolf Hoffmeister, via Wikimedia Commons.