Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game”

961 words | 4 page(s)

Written in 1944 prior to his masterpiece Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s short story “King of the Bingo Game is often viewed by scholars as a precursor for the above mentioned novel. The story, however, truly does stand alone. Alienation is a topic many authors throughout the history of the world have endeavored to explore, but Ellison’s specific theme is the alienation enduring by Black Americans in the United States as they struggled to assimilate and find their niche in society. The main character or protagonist, is unnamed throughout the course of the piece. He is alone and this loneliness is further heightened by the possibly impending death of his ill wife Laura.

Ellison incorporates the use of symbolism and irony in the “King of the Bingo Game” to hammer his point home, for this story focuses on a segment of American society that at that time was largely ignored: the young, black working class. The story concentrates on a topic that is one of the most discussed in world literature which is an individual’s utter powerlessness in the face of fate and their deep seated yearning to contend with that feeling of sheer helplessness. In “King of the Bingo Game” Ellison, scrutinizes a person’s behavior when it comes to their fate and narrows this down even further with how a black man wrestles with his destiny.

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As the story begins, the Bingo King is viewing a movie for the fourth time and is ruminating about a scene where a woman is tied to a bed. His thoughts, however, keep returning to his ill wife and how he will collect the funds to help her when he is broke. He also thinks about how different circumstances are for him now that he lives in a Northern city, as he hails from the South originally. When he received the opportunity to spin the bingo wheel, he casts these thoughts aside as he sees a chance to win some money to help his wife. Now that he has been presented with the chance to mold his own destiny, he will not stop holding down the button that controls the wheel. As the wheel continues to spin, all of the trials and tribulations he has experienced throughout his life, run through his mind. By holding down the button, he can control time, but reality comes crashing down on him when the two white men that monitor the bingo game and enforce the rules literally kick him the head. It is assumed the Bingo King is placed squarely back in reality for that is where the story terminates.

The particular episode of the Bingo King refuses to release the button clearly illustrates and supports Ellison’s theme in regards to how helpless a person can feel when confronted with their own fate. The wheel represents that people should persevere in the face of difficult events that bring them down, for the wheel continues to turn and when someone is one the bottom, such as the Bingo King, it is inevitable they will once again be on top. When he begins to spin the wheel, he finally understands here is an opportunity for him to rise to the top. If he can control where the wheel lands and when, he wins by pulling himself from the bottom. For example, Ellison writes, “He was reborn. For as long as he pressed the button he was The-man-who-pressed-the-button-who-held-the-prize-who-was-the-King-of-Bingo.” He defers his fate for that instant when spinning the wheel. Unfortunately, the Bingo King’s freedom is short-lived as the police and the bingo caller remove the button from him and he goes right back to the bottom of the heap in an instant.

Another theme Ellison depicts is the struggle of the black man to determine his own fate in American society. The Bingo King’s situation could apply to any person, no matter what the color of their skin is, but Ellison clearly delineates the plight of the black man. This is illustrated by the fact the Bingo Man is never named, but his race is pointed out. Also, the enforcers that return him to the bottom of the pile after not releasing the bingo button are clearly white. That makes a serious statement as to what Ellison is attempting to impart. All individuals must struggle with their fate, but a black person has even more difficulty under the circumstances to rise above the problems life places in the way. American culture is stacked against them and is much more beneficial to whites. What is intriguing about Ellison’s work, is he is not outwardly stating anything about race, but his purpose is clear. Sometimes an understatement has more effect than just coming out and saying it.

The episode in the “King of the Bingo Game” where the main character spins the wheel and refuses to release the button, support Ellison’s overall contention that a black man wrestles with his fate and how he fits in to American society. The very title of the story promotes Ellison’s theme, as the protagonist truly felt like a King when he had control in his hands. He felt like he could manage everything and would pulled his state of despair. When reality comes crashing in, the King realizes he will only be transported right back to the same place and might never crawl out from his lowly lot in life. Ellison reinforces this notion and that of racial struggle by the use of two white men to return the King back to his downtrodden place in the world, which is beneath them because he is black. Again, this sequence of events promotes Ellison’s racial theme and his concept of how black individuals deal with this situation.

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