“King of the Bingo Game” opens with a man sitting in a movie theater watching a movie he has already seen. He is hungry, and he can smell the peanuts that the woman in front of him is eating. Readers are able to access his thoughts as he envisions being in the South where he could ask the woman for a peanut and she would give him one. He also thinks the same thing about a pair of men who are on his right, drinking wine. He is broke and his wife, Laura, is sick and dying. Watching the movie, he thinks about how the characters in the movie are able to escape their predicaments, but he is not. He also thinks of what would happen if the woman in the movie were to take off her clothes.
He falls asleep and dreams that he is back in the South, where he lived when he was a boy. He dreams that a train is bearing down on him. Although he jumps off the tracks, the train follows him onto the highway and down the street. He wakes up screaming, and an old man next to him gives him a drink of whiskey. As the movie ends, a bingo game begins. The protagonist has brought five cards with him; he worries that the bingo-caller would not like this if he knew, but he needs to get money for a doctor for his wife and he needs the extra chances. Although he becomes flustered trying to keep up with the numbers being called, he ends up getting bingo, and has a chance to spin the bingo wheel in order to win the day’s jackpot. Initially afraid that he has marked the wrong numbers, he is reassured as the authorities confirm his victory.
While on the stage, the bingo caller, a white man, begins to make fun of the Bingo King, talking “jive” and sneering at his rural upbringing. The protagonist must push a button in order to make the bingo wheel spin; if the wheel stops on double-zero, he will win the jackpot of $36.90. Confident that he has the right strategy, he pushes the button. “There was a whirl of lights, and in a second he realized with finality that though he wanted to, he could not stop.” He keeps his finger on the button and the wheel spins faster. The audience begins to get impatient and starts yelling at him to get down, but he cannot. He feels that he has control, and he thinks that this experience “is God!” The bingo caller puts his hand on the Bingo King’s shoulder, but he brushes it away violently, a deplorable action considering his upbringing in the South.
As the Bingo King remains on the stage, he refuses the bingo caller’s demand for him to finish. He looks out on “all the Negroes down there” in the audience and feels that “most of the time he was ashamed of what Negroes did himself. Well, let them be ashamed for something this time.” He feels powerful. As the wheel continues to spin, he feels in control; he is “the-man-who-pressed-the-buttonwho-held-the-prize- who- was-the-King-of-Bingo.” Still on the stage, the man’s nose begins to bleed and he starts to think of running away with his wife, running down the subway tracks. As the crowd sings mocking songs at him, he thinks,’ Til do what I got to do.”
Finally, the crowd begins to applaud. The Bingo King does not let go of the button even as two men in uniform approach him. He runs from them from one side of the stage to another, tries to avoid them, but finally they wrestle him to the ground. As they take the button away from him, the numbers land on double zero. “You see,” he tells them, trying to explain that he is a winner, and he believes he “would receive what all the winners received.” However, as the story closes, the only thing that he receives is the “dull pain exploding in his head” from the blow the police give him.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ralph Ellison, Published by Gale, 1997.