Ralph Ellison struggled through much of his career with his role as a black American writer. Alternately patronized and exalted in his early career, by the 1960s the militant tone of the black intellectual world deemed him irrelevant. Activists of the civil-rights movement preferred the militancy and anger of works like Black Boy, (written by Richard Wright, one of Ellison’s mentors) over Ellison’s moderate stance. Ellison never felt comfortable with what he saw as the limitations of the genre of “Negro literature.” “I am a human being, and not just the black successor to Richard Wright,” he wrote, “and there are ways of celebrating my experience more complex than terms like ‘protest’ can suggest.”
Ellison was educated in the two most important “schools” for black intellectuals and artists of the time. He attended Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, the college founded by Booker T. Washington; and lived in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, a period which produced an explosion of critically acclaimed literary and artistic works that originated with black artists living there. He also felt the strong influence of the late nineteenth century’s most important black American thinkers: Washington, who argued for tolerance and patience in racial matters; and W. E. B. DuBois, who urged a more confrontational stance.
In 1952, Ellison published Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award and has since gained recognition as one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century. The novel, modeled after Fedor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, tells the story of a young black man who leaves his small town to attend a school much like Tuskegee, then moves on to New York where he falls in with a radical group. Ellison’s protagonist does not see militancy as a legitimate solution, and at the end of the book he remains as alienated from his surroundings as he was in his segregated hometown. In this, Ellison is closer to modernist writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf than he is to writers such as Wright.
“King of the Bingo Game,” from 1944, is in many ways a precursor to Invisible Man. As in the later novel, the story’s unnamed protagonist does not feel connected to any of the other characters in the story (although he is dedicated to his sick wife Laura, who does not appear except in his thoughts). He seeks to turn his marginality into a mechanism by which he can control his own fate. This marginality is symbolized by his own particular personal situation, his identity as a rural Southerner in the urban North, and his identity as a black man in a white-dominated society. The topics of alienation and control were written about extensively by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The presence of these themes within “King of the Bingo Game” demonstrates the influence Nietzsche had on Ellison.
The story is almost perfectly divided in half. The themes, events, characterization, and even the style of the narration abruptly shift at the halfway point. This is not to say that the story is not unified; each half comments on its counterpart, and complements the other.
In the first half of the story, we meet our unnamed protagonist. He is sitting in a movie theater, watching a movie, and feeling the pangs of hunger as he smells the roasted peanuts that the woman in front of him is eating. Throughout this half of the story, the protagonist is passive and has no control over his surroundings. He is also vaguely dissatisfied: ‘”If this was down South,’ he thought, ‘all I’d have to do is lean over and say, ‘Lady, gimme a few of those peanuts, please ma’am,’ and she’d pass me the bag and never think nothing of it … Folks down South stuck together that way.” We see immediately that he does not feel at home. The solidarity of the oppressed which black people shared in the South is lost here, and the (relative) freedom from the Jim Crow segregation laws is cold comfort to our hungry hero.
As he watches the movie, the protagonist thinks to himself that’ They had it all fixed. Everything is fixed.” He already knows what is going to happen, not only in the movie but in his own life. He dreams of what might happen if the events in the film were somehow altered. The protagonist’s daydream about the white woman removing her clothes implicitly suggests a violation of one of the most crucial elements of Jim Crow laws, the prohibition against any sexual relationship between whites and blacks. But obviously, this does not happen, and the protagonist is trapped in his fate. He is poor and unemployed, his wife is dying and he cannot afford a doctor, and he cannot count on the even superficial friendliness that he would have found among Southerners.
The story begins to shift as the protagonist”felt for his bingo cards, smiling.” The curtain rises, suggesting the suspension of reality which the stage symbolizes, and the bingo game begins. The protagonist has improved his odds on winning by buying five cards, and although he has difficulty keeping up with the caller’s numbers (much as he cannot keep up, financially, with the demands of his wife’s illness), he ends up winning. The fact that he “stumbled up the aisle” and that the audience refers to him as “fool” indicates to us that this minor victory is not yet enough to save him. As the authorities check his number, he is still at the mercy of forces beyond his control, and he remains so as the bingo caller makes fun of his accent and upbringing.
However, as he takes the button from the bingo caller and prepares to try to win the jackpot, his outlook changes. “He steeled himself; the fear had left, and he felt a profound sense of promise, as if he were about to be repaid for all the things he’d suffered in his life.” In the second half of the story, the protagonist is transformed: he finally has power, not only over his own fate, but over the entire audience. The wheel spins and spins and he watches it, both frightened and enthralled by the unfamiliar thrill of being in control. “He and only he could determine whether or not [the jackpot] was to be his. Not even the man with the microphone could do anything about it now. He felt drunk.”
The protagonist is drunk with power. The power that the button gives him allows him to step beyond the limitations on his actions imposed by his race, class, and origins. As the spectators watch him, impatiently yelling at him to hurry up and finish, he looks down on them from the stage, both figuratively and literally: “Those folks did not understand what had happened to him. .. . He watched the wheel whirling past the numbers and experienced a burst of exaltation: This is God! And as if God was on his side, the protagonist defies a white authority figure, an act of defiance that he would never have dared to commit before. The bingo caller’s “hand fell on his shoulder .. . He brushed the hand violently away. ‘Leave me alone, man. I know what I’m doing.”‘ In the face of the potential jackpot, all men are equal.
The protagonist even takes his newfound equality a step further as the wheel continues to spin madly. The crowd yells at him to come down from the stage, but by now he has transcended not only his race but his humanity. “He was a long thin black wire that was being stretched and wound upon the bingo wheel; wound until he wanted to scream; wound, but this time himself controlling the winding.” With his hand upon the button, he has somehow tapped into the power of the Fates that control the universe.
The spinning wheel as the arbiter of fate is one of the oldest images in Western literature. Ancient Roman literature often refers to the Wheel of Fortune, and in the The Consolation of Philosophy, the Roman statesman Boethius meditates on how the spinning wheel, which once placed him in high and prestigious positions, now has overseen his death penalty from the imperial government. Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde, also uses the concept of the wheel of fortune to explain people’s seemingly inexplicable shifting fates. In Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game,” the hero clearly has spent most of his life on the bottom of the wheel, and his initial victory at bingo indicates to readers familiar with this image that he will now have the pleasure of fortune’s favor.
The bitter irony of the story lies in the fact that the protagonist’s triumph is momentary. Confronted by the spinning wheel of Fate, he seeks not to trust in the wheel’s wisdom, but rather to control it. The wheel, in the story, is indeed God: it determines the fates of the bingo victors. The protagonist’s fault here is another one with an ancient heritage; he suffers from hubris, the belief that one is superior to fate and the gods. By the end of the story, the crowd which he previously commanded is mocking him, stomping and singing derisive rhymes, and the authorities are called. He runs away from them in circles, looking to the audience like an actor in a slapstick sketch, and finally is knocked down and kicked in the head as the audience applauds.
Another parallel for Ellison’s story is the Gospel narrative of Jesus before the mob. At first encouraging and eager, the crowd quickly turns ugly and before long sides with the authorities who oppress them. Both the crowd and the protagonist here are black and the authorities are white; in the Christ story, Jesus and the mob are Jewish and the authorities are Roman. In both cases, the individual who is chosen feels separated and alienated from what should be his people.
As in much of Ellison’s writing, “King of the Bingo Game” weaves together communal themes of racial oppression and individual themes of alienation. Ellison’s refusal to indicate which of the two is more fundamental to his characters’ predicaments condemned him to a marginal place both among the modernist writers (who valued the theme of individual alienation above all) and the radical black writers of the Harlem Renaissance and the 1960s (who felt that racism was the most important topic to explore). However, it is precisely that indeterminacy that helps Ellison capture the complexity of the dynamic between self and society.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ralph Ellison, Published by Gale, 1997.
Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997