King of the Bingo Game
by Ralph Ellison
Where It All Goes Down
Bingo hall in the North, during the Great Migration (probably in the 1940s)
What's the Great Migration, you might ask? Although we normally refer such questions to Shmoop History, we'll give you a quick rundown here. From 1910-1950, conditions in the South were horrible, and it was difficult for African-Americans to find jobs. As a result, millions of black Americans moved north to find jobs. (You can learn more about the Great Migration in Shmoop History's "Jim Crow in America.") Given that "King of the Bingo Game" was published in 1944, and its protagonist has moved from the South to the North, we can assume that he is part of the Great Migration. However, our protagonist has been unable to find a job, so he resorts to the bingo game in hopes of making some money.
The setting is particularly interesting in "King of the Bingo Game" for the physicality it lends to the novel's themes. The setting can be broken down into three emblematic portions. First, the protagonist is sitting in a darkened movie theater. Not only is the movie playing, but he also has access to other sights, sounds, and smells. The peanuts tantalize his stomach. Bottles gurgle as men sneak their drinks. This portion is predicated on anticipation. Our protagonist anticipates the idea of eating some peanuts or drinking some liquor. Most importantly, he is anticipating the bingo game. Not only is this portion tied to a sense of anticipation, it is also tied to the protagonist's isolation. He is in the unfriendly North, which he repeatedly contrasts to the more friendly culture in the South – a place where he could very easily ask for some peanuts or a drink from his seatmates.
In the second portion of the text, the protagonist is taken from the dark seating area into the bright light of the stage. (More on this in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.") As he stands in the light and holds down that button, he experiences a profound revelation. Ellison explicitly connects the protagonist's awakening and rebirth with light, allowing the setting to mirror the protagonist's state of mind.
The very last part of the story – the very last image of the story – is the curtain coming down on the stage, which again demonstrates the way the setting mirrors the protagonist's story arc. A falling curtain typically signals the end of a show, and that tradition continues to be observed here. The protagonist's literal moment in the limelight, his moment of truth and revelation and power, has literally ended with the falling curtain, as his consciousness is ended by the blow he receives to the head.