Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994)
Classroom Issues and Strategies
While readers often find an excerpt from Ellison's Invisible Man
in anthologies, his 1944 story, "King of the Bingo Game," introduces
many of his characteristic themes--issues of self-knowledge, marginalization,
and postmodern angst in an evocative, surreal text. One of the last stories
he wrote before starting the masterful Invisible Man, "King
of the Bingo Game" integrates politics, history, and ritual with Ellison's
grounding of African-American folklore. According to Robert G. O'Meally,
it was the writer's use of black sermons, tales, games, jokes, boasts,
dozens, blues, and spirituals that set his work apart from that of other
mid-century African-American writers. His incorporation of folklore gave
his work a richer textual base and thematically unified his aesthetic and
the black community.
Useful exercises, for Ellison as well as Zora
Neale Hurston, James
Weldon Johnson, and even Nella
Larsen, are discussions of that folklore. Because Ellison studied American
Humor by Constance Rourke, a book from the 1930s that is still valuable,
student reports on her work might be interesting; as would be those on
specific secondary criticism of Ellison's unique style and sources for
his writing. "King of the Bingo Game" is the kind of writing
that benefits from both close reading and cultural theory applications.
The same kind of student research on the more recent "magical realism"
of the American South and Central American novelists would help to explain
Ellison's blend of realism and absurdist, dreamlike fantasy.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
As in Invisible Man, here too the protagonist's question is,
"Who am I?" and "How do I fit in this world?" Unemployed,
poor, and worried about his sick wife, Ellison's "hero" still
hopes he can succeed enough (he is still plagued with the remnants of the
American Dream, which tells him that if he leads a good and moral life,
and works hard, he will be prosperous and happy) to at least buy medicine
for his wife. But the randomness of the spinning wheel closes off even
that slim hope, and throughout the dreamlike stages of his realization
that even if he should win, what he gains will be too little--that his
battle is really with history and fate, not with any personal or individual
existence--the character's behavior changes dramatically.
The changes are tied to interruptions from the myths that have brought
him this far into the absurd, materialistic American modern world. Ellison
sets the story in a movie theater, that place for learning about--and envisioning--the
American Dream. The protagonist is hungry; the woman in front of him is
eating peanuts, a symbolic southern product. He misses the South (Rocky
Mountain, North Carolina, specifically) and in his nostalgia for the camaraderie
he remembers having found there, the reader is shown that he has come North,
made the crucial trip from the land of slavery to the land of freedom.
Yet, having come North, he finds himself almost hopeless--poor, hungry,
and afraid that people in this strange part of the country will think he
As he watches the love scene in the film, which acts as a catalyst for
his worry about his wife Laura (a borrowed reference from the mainstream
culture to the haunting "Laura," a popular ballad), his attention
moves to the stream of white light coming from the projection room. Symbolic
of both technology and the control of power (white ownership of the theater,
of the film industry), the projectionists become, in the protagonist's
interior monologue, those in control: "they had it all fixed. Everything
was fixed." His fantasy is that the film will be shown "wrong"
and will come to include a scene of sexuality. When rules don't work, it
might be permissible to break them.
The last bit of foregrounding before the story proper begins--the Bingo
game itself--is the protagonist's falling asleep, dreaming of narrowly
escaping an oncoming train. Like a traditional hero, the protagonist should
achieve something besides that escape--instead, he screams, and his neighbor
gives him a drink of whiskey from his bottle. Still in the dark, ritually
equated with his own blackness, he moves from seat to seat, positioning
himself for the bingo drawing down front in the brightly lit arena of the
The dialogue between the man running the bingo game and the protagonist
is filled with ethnic references-- "one of the chosen people,"
"boy," "all reet," coming down off the mountain, and
so on. But the terror of being exposed to the eyes of the white culture,
of being unable to control the button properly, and, at base, his recognition
that nothing will come of even this "winning," lead him into
the macabre, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable behavior that closes the
story. In the midst of the audience's shouts that he get off the stage,
revelling in what might be called power, he screams his plaintive, "Who
am I?" His monologue in response to their rude reply is the theme
for Invisible Man, another fiction about an essentially nameless
character: "They didn't know either, he thought sadly. They didn't
even know their own names, they were all poor nameless bastards. Well,
he didn't need that old name; 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.'" Ellison's reflection on names throughout
the story, particularly the pointed reference to slaves' taking the name
of their owners instead of any lineage of their own, undergirds his later
exploration of the ways people are known in contemporary society.
"King of the Bingo Game" is an expression of the ultimate
irony. The road North does not lead to freedom, the process of being saved
does not lead to heaven, the work ethic has no reward--except jail, bereavement,
and perhaps even insanity. And yet Ellison lays no blame on any explicit
character, race, or people. Rather than a moral universe, his fiction takes
place in a realistic one, in which people like winners-- and only winners.
Major themes are alienation, in the great American tradition from the
nineteenth century; separateness of black from black, as well as black
from white; disenfranchisement from cultural norms and attitudes; sheer
loneliness; the role of names and lack of names; cultural signals about
belonging, possession, place.
Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences, 1989.
Busby, Mark. Ralph Ellison, 1991.
Kostelanetz, Richard. Politics in the African-American Novel,
See headnote for additional material.