Fate and Determinism
In “King of the Bingo Game,” Ralph Ellison explores the relationship between man and fate. The bingo wheel represents the ‘ ‘Wheel of Fortune,” an ancient image used to depict man’s position among the fates. The concept of the wheel attempts to explain how a person can be fortunate and prosperous one day and destitute the next by positing that people are on a wheel, moving up and down unpredictably. This concept holds that any person who is experiencing difficulties should persevere because eventually that position will reverse. For the Bingo King, though, the Wheel is a joke that does not fulfill its assigned role. The Bingo King has been perpetually on the bottom. When the story opens, he is almost penniless, he is new to an unfamiliar and unfriendly city, and his wife is dying. He attempts to stack the odds in his favor by buying five bingo cards, but when that plan succeeds he is confronted by another difficult problem: how to make the bingo wheel stop on the double zero he needs in order to win the jackpot.
When he actually starts to spin the wheel, though, the Bingo King has a flash of understanding. Unless he continues to spin the wheel, thereby suspending its final judgment, he will again end up on the bottom: ‘ ‘high and dry, dry and high on this hard high slippery hill and Laura dead.” Consequently, he decides to take control of his own fate by continuing to spin the wheel, deferring any judgement or decision momentarily. For the time that he continues to press the button, he is able to stand outside time and be the one being that is not subject to Fortune’s whims:’ “This is God! This is the really truly God!!” he exults.
However, Fate’s enforcers—the bingo caller and the police—are finally able to wrestle the button away from him, and in that instant he returns to his accustomed place at the bottom of the wheel. At the end of the story, he receives his accustomed justice: “as he warmed in the justice of the man’s tight smile he did not see the man’s slow wink, nor see the bow-legged man behind him step clear of the swiftly descending curtain and set himself for a blow. He only felt the dull pain exploding in his skull.”
Although the story’s theme is certainly applicable to all, Ellison makes it clear that he is focusing on how the “Wheel of Fortune” affects black Americans in particular. The Bingo King is by no means an Everyman: he belongs to a historically oppressed social group, and even within his own social group he is a member of a less fortunate minority. Ellison immediately injects the racial theme into the story when the Bingo King watches the movie surrounded by black men who imagine themselves in a room with the bound white woman. Sex between black men and white women was greatly feared by whites in the South and considered a terrible transgression. Even the whispered fantasies of the Bingo King’s neighbors must be terrifying to him: people were lynched in the Bingo King’s home of North Carolina for lesser transgressions than whispering. The way the Bingo King’s neighbors talk about undermining this fundamental rule of white society foreshadows the King’s own rebellion against the laws of fate.
Ellison underscores the way the Bingo King is alienated from his own race as well. When he stands on stage, the emcee asks the Bingo King where he is from. “Down South,” the King answers. The emcee then subtly ridicules his rural accent and downhome ways which are different from the hard cynical ways of the audience, who call’ ‘Let that fool up there!” when he gets his bingo. However, the Bingo King gets his revenge (if only in his own mind) as he stands on the stage, overcoming Fate. “All the Negroes down there were just ashamed because he was black like them. Most of the time he was ashamed at what Negroes did himself. Well, let them be ashamed for something this time. Like him.” In a further ironic twist at the conclusion of the story, the Bingo King receives precisely the same brutal treatment that any other member of his race would experience.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ralph Ellison, Published by Gale, 1997.