Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994)

    Contributing Editor:
    Linda Wagner-Martin

    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 is "crazy."

    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 stage.

    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, 1991.

    See headnote for additional material.