Narration and Point of View
“King of the Bingo Game” utilizes a third-person narrator who is inside the consciousness of the Bingo King. The narrator relates the Bingo King’s thoughts and his memories. At first, the narration is relentlessly realistic, and almost naturalistic in its depiction of the mind of a poor, downtrodden, yet still-hopeful man. The introduction of his sick wife into the narrative gives the story a melodramatic tone.
However, as the story continues, the realism lessens and the narration approximates the consciousness of the Bingo King, becoming a mouthpiece for him as he is taken over by the power of the bingo wheel. “This is God! This is the really truly God!” the narrator tells us. “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.” But as the story ends, the narrative voice recedes, and as the power of the wheel is separated from the Bingo King by the authorities, the realistic narration that was present in the beginning of the story returns.
Ellison uses irony, a characteristic modernist device, throughout the story. It is ironic, for instance, that the number the Bingo King needs to hit in order to win the jackpot is double zero; “zero” being what American blacks felt they had received from the established white society. It is also ironic that the Bingo King’s freedom from circumstances is attained through playing the numbers. The hope peddled by numbers runners drained significant amounts of money and hope from the poor people who bought chances. The fact that the “jackpot” is only $36.90 is also ironic; such a small amount of money would barely begin to bring the Bingo King out of poverty.
Deeper irony resides in other parts of the story. The Bingo King ensures an even harsher punishment for himself by refusing to relinquish the button. As he returns to the real world, away from the suspended reality of the spinning bingo wheel, he bitterly tells the men surrounding him, “You see.” “It’s O.K.” But as one of the men smiles at him, another readies to kick him in the head. Though he has overcome fate and taken control of his destiny in the world of the bingo game, and though the wheel of fortune brings the Bingo King up to the top, at the end of the story he finds himself at a point even lower than where he began.
The main symbol in the story is the bingo wheel. That wheel represents not only the capricious nature of Fortune or Fate, but also the futility of the hopes of the black people in the audience, once the Bingo King strikes 00 and still loses. However, many of the smaller items in the story also have symbolic value. The bag of peanuts eaten by the woman in front of the Bingo King represents all that he desires but cannot have: money; pleasure; a better life; the feelings of”sticking together” that he remembers from the South. Their smell”stabbed him like a knife.” The whiskey that the man in the theater gives to the Bingo King recurs in a symbolic way when the King is on stage and the audience sings “Shoot the liquor to him, Jim boy!” Whiskey or liquor here symbolizes the release from daily existence that is both welcome and extremely dangerous. To the men in the audience, the Bingo King simply seems drunk, while in his own mind, he is transcending the bonds of everyday reality.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ralph Ellison, Published by Gale, 1997.