First published in 1944, “King of the Bingo Game” by Ralph Ellison tells the story of a black man trying to win some money so his sick wife can go to the doctor. It deals with some of the same themes as Ellison’s best known work, the novel Invisible Man, from 1952.
Summary of “King of the Bingo Game”
An unnamed black man sits in a theater watching a movie he’s seen several times. He’s very hungry, and some people near him are eating peanuts and drinking wine. In the South, he could ask to share, but not here.
The man is unemployed, broke, and his wife, Laura, is near death. He can’t focus on the movie. He looks at the projection light coming from the balcony and thinks about how it works. He imagines it changing the movie into something racier, and he gets a strange sensation.
He falls asleep and dreams of being a boy back South, walking along a railroad trestle. He runs off the track as a train bears down on him. He escapes into the road, but is terrified as the train leaves the track and follows him. He screams and white people laugh at him.
Another man wakes him up for screaming in the theater. He gives him a drink of whiskey. It makes him light-headed, and the smell of the peanuts torments him. He changes seats.
The movie ends. A man with a microphone and an attendant come onto the stage into the light. The unnamed man takes out his bingo cards, and positions himself so he can easily see the wheel. He needs to win some money for Laura.
The man with the microphone presses a button to spin the wheel. He calls out the numbers as it stops. The man struggles to keep track of all his cards. After missing a few numbers, he fills a row on one of his cards. He’s paralyzed before he’s able to yell “Bingo.”
He awkwardly makes his way to the stage, into the bright light. The man with the microphone checks the numbers and confirms them. To win the jackpot of $36.90, the wheel must stop between the double zero. He knows the procedure and has seen people press the button many times.
He becomes tense, feeling that his whole unlucky life has been determined by the bingo wheel. He stars to leave the stage, but the man with the microphone calls him back. He talks down to the unnamed man and makes fun of him before handing him the button.
He believes the winning strategy is a quick spin. Standing behind the wheel, feeling confident about his chances, he presses the button. He realizes he can’t let it go, and the wheel continues to spin. He feels in control of his fate as long as the wheel spins.
The audience gets restless and starts yelling at him. The man with the microphone tells him to hurry up. The unnamed man states his case, explaining he’s free to play who he wants, and that he’s going to show the world how it’s done.
The crowd is ashamed of how he’s acting, and they continue to yell. The man feels he’s running the show, and forgets his own name. He screams out “Who am I?”. He feels reborn as the King of Bingo. He screams out for Laura to live. He feels a rush of blood to his head, and his nose bleeds. He imagines running away with Laura ahead of a train.
The audience mocks him with a song and claps their hands. They applaud as two men in uniform approach him. He backs away as much as the cord will allow. When they get near, he bolts through them and strikes out. He runs in a circle and flails as they try to restrain him. On the floor, they try to wrestle the button away. One of them stomps on his wrist and then his head. The wheel slowly stops at double zero.
The curtain falls. He’s kicked in the head by one of the men. He knows his luck has run out.
The protagonist is alienated in several ways.
For one, he’s a Southerner who’s now living in the North. He feels the separation this creates right away, knowing he can’t ask for any peanuts or a drink, because things aren’t done like that here. In the South, you don’t even have to know someone to have this connection with them. Later, the announcer makes fun of his Southern background.
He’s also facing the possible death of his wife, Laura. There’s no mention of any children or other family, so her death would leave him alone in an unfamiliar place. This is confirmed later when he screams, “I got nobody but YOU!”, while the wheel turns.
The unnamed man can’t get a job, which excludes him from work associates and other contacts he’d make during his day.
He doesn’t have a birth certificate, which symbolically calls his existence into question. He’s among people, but he’s not really there.
The protagonist is also alienated as a black person among whites. The announcer draws attention to this distinction by disrespectfully calling him “Boy”, and mockingly talking jive to him.
His behavior on stage also alienates him from the other black people present. He thinks they, “. . . were ashamed because he was black like them.” This feeling is mutual, as the man is ashamed of black people himself for how they act.
The audience, black and white alike, all turn on him when he delays the proceedings.
The protagonist fights against fate when he refuses to stop spinning the wheel.
It’s notable that this refusal is seemingly out of his control—fated. When he presses the button, his plan, based on his observation of the game, is to give the wheel “a short quick twirl. Just a touch of the button.” As soon as he presses it he realizes that, “though he wanted to, he could not stop.” From the beginning, it’s obvious that his fight against fate will fail as things are already out of his control.
As it continues to spin, it’s “as though it held his fate”, and, “He could not stop it now, he knew.” We see again that the protagonist is doomed to meet his fate, regardless of any efforts he makes to fight it. He’s “drawn more and more into its power.”
As the wheel spins still more, he’s seized with doubt, wondering if it will spin long enough. His fight is made clear here as he futilely tries to control the situation by spinning the wheel indefinitely. Of course, we know this is impossible; it has to stop sometime.
Despite just feeling helpless, he thinks he’s found a way to beat the system. He exclaims, “This is God!” He feels outside of the bounds of fate, in control, like God.
The man resists the urgings of the announcer and the audience to hurry up. We get further indications that this won’t end well. He feels that he controls the wheel, but the wheel also controls him, and “he had to do whatever the wheel demanded.” Throughout this experience, he feels a sense of power, that he’s running the show. He either vacillates between feeling helpless and feeling powerful, or feels them simultaneously.
Next, the man loses his sense of self when he forgets his name. He doesn’t care, though, feeling he’s been reborn as King-of-Bingo. He remains completely immersed in the experience. This seems similar to earlier when he felt like God.
His fight against fate reaches a new intensity when it turns physical. Security chases him, wrestles him, and then hits him to finally release his hold on the button. We see a parallel to his spin with his technique in evading the security guards as he runs in a circle. As with spinning the wheel, this is not a viable long-term strategy.
When the wheel comes to a stop on double zero, the man thinks he has cheated fate as he “warmed in the justice of the man’s tight smile.” This is short-lived as another man soon kicks him in the head. Finally, the man accepts that “his luck had run out.”
When it’s all over, the man’s fight has been a failure. He has sustained physical injury and possible psychological consequences from it. On top of that, he won’t be getting the jackpot despite hitting the winning number. No doubt, his win will be nullified due to the disturbance he caused.
In hindsight, it’s clear that the man’s actions were doomed from the start. Fate begins and then ends his act of rebellion, and he’s its pawn throughout.
Irony in “The King of the Bingo Game”
Some irony can be seen in the title. The man becomes “king” of the game only in his own mind. Objectively, he’s simply stalling and making a nuisance of himself. To the onlookers, he appears drunk or crazy, making him an object of scorn, not esteem as he imagines. Ultimately, he has no real authority, as he gets physically removed from the game.
Some other examples of irony include:
- He has to hit double zero to win, but he ends up getting zero instead. This could also represent how African-Americans viewed the opportunities they were getting from white society.
- The jackpot the man hangs his hopes on is $36.90, which is equivalent to a little over $600 today (in 2022). This might be enough to get someone out a short-term jam, but it’s certainly not going to be life-changing.
- The man’s strategy of spinning the wheel indefinitely as a way of controlling his fate results in him losing his jackpot and suffering other injuries besides.
What is the significance of the man’s dream and his imagined scenario?
The man dreams he’s a boy walking on a railroad trestle with a train bearing down on him. He’s relieved to get off in time, but is then terrified to see it has followed him off the tracks. White people laugh at him as he screams and flees.
This dream seems to represent his view of life. He hasn’t been able to get ahead as a black person in a white society, regardless of what he does. A guaranteed way of escaping an oncoming train is to get off the tracks, but this doesn’t work for him. It foreshadows his failure to escape his fate.
In his imagination, he’s carrying Laura in his arms while running down the subway tracks with a train closing in on them from behind. If he stops they’ll be hit, and if he leaves the tracks he’ll be electrocuted on the third rail.
This imagined scene echoes the futility of his dream. Once again, there’s nothing he can do to escape disaster. He will either be crushed by the train or electrocuted by the third rail. His destiny is set, and he’s helpless to change it.