Think about the subject matter to start – we have a nameless, broke protagonist trying desperately to save the woman he loves. It would be difficult to take any kind of tone other than sadness with this story.
At the same time, however, the protagonist's descent into madness represents a kind of transcendent hope. He forsakes his old, beat-down, suffering self and is reborn as the King of the Bingo, someone who controls his own destiny. However, his reign ends rapidly, leaving us right where we started: sad.
Let's start with the sheer intensity of the images presented to us. The very first line, "The woman in front of him was eating roasted peanuts that smelled so good that he could barely contain his hunger," (1) signals that this will be a story of extremes.
We learn that Laura will die unless he gets money to pay a doctor. Notice that she is not sick or near death or even dangerously ill. The issue is framed as: "Laura 'bout to die 'cause we got no money for a doctor" (16). Later, "the smell of peanuts stabbed him like a knife" and "he saw a row of intense-faced young girls" (16). Once he has swallowed the whiskey, he faces a lethal combination of hunger, depression, and alcohol. Together, they push him into a crazed tailspin.
The intense images and feelings help contribute to the sense that the entire story is positioned on the edge of sanity. Welcome to surrealism, ladies and gentlemen. Other aspects of the story demonstrate hallmarks of the genre as well: the dream that allows us to probe the protagonist's subconscious, the interaction between the protagonist and the spinning wheel that occurs entirely in the protagonist's mind, and the descriptions of how the "audience had somehow entered him and was stamping its feet in his stomach" (74).
"King of the Bingo Game" refers to the nameless protagonist of the story, who, as he continues pressing the button controlling the spinning bingo wheel, forgoes his African-American identity for a new identity tied to his ability to control the game. He reasons that "King of the Bingo Game" is a far better title than the white man's name given to his grandfather "a long lost time ago" (66). In a way, it's as though the protagonist is being re-born, this time with a sense of agency: he gets to give himself his new name.
But let's dig deeper. We can interpret "King of the Bingo Game" to refer to the protagonist's feelings of mastery over his situation. He is pressing the button. He is controlling the wheel. He is controlling his own destiny. But there may be some irony at play here. A bingo game isn't exactly an "illustrious" activity. Thus, on the one hand, being King of the Bingo Game might come across as tragic or pitiful.
But on the other hand, the author might be saying that being king of this everyday game, on his own terms, is better than anything his predecessors had – and that says a lot. While bingo might seem unimportant at first blush, the game really means something to our protagonist – and possibly all those whom he represents.
We're going to break the ending down for you in two different ways. First of all, we have to deal with the protagonist. Although he was in a bad position at the start of the story (he has no money, no food, and Laura is about to die), he is in an even worse position by the end (he's been kicked in the head, and Laura will certainly die). Might he have been better off not playing the bingo game at all?
Then there's the technical component of the ending, meaning the artistry that Ellison puts into it. The last line of the story reads as follows: "He only felt the dull pain exploding in his skull, and he knew even as it slipped out of him that his luck had run out on the stage" (87). Notice how we are completely embroiled in the protagonist's point of view – "he felt only the dull pain exploding in his skull." He didn't see who hit him. Ending in such a fashion, with us experiencing life as the protagonist experiences it, increases our sympathy for the protagonist and his struggles.
We have one more aspect of the ending to address here: "His luck had run out on the stage." The story deftly parallels the typical conclusion of a theatrical show (the curtain coming down on the stage) with the finality of the story itself. See "Setting" for a lengthier discussion of theatrical elements in "King of the Bingo Game."
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.
Ellison was really into music (especially jazz), and his literary efforts tend to be inspired by the musical form. Jazz has a long-standing tradition of drawing on different styles to create a full piece of music notable for irregular beats, improvisation, and syncopation.
So how does it connect with "King of the Bingo Game"? That's really a question for you, but we'll point out that the story begins in a relatively realistic fashion. A hungry guy sits in a theatre and wants some of his neighbor's peanuts. As Ellison crafts the story, however, notice that he occasionally includes words like "swoller," "reet," and "holt," peppering the story with an authentic voice. At the same time, the story veers away from realism and sinks deep into surrealism, with long forays into the protagonist's consciousness. Especially check out paragraph 79, where the protagonist enters into a lengthy dream sequence.
Are you getting our point now? Go back through the story and see if you can discern a rhythm. And then, the next time you read Ellison, put on some jazz and see if it changes the experience. Just a little tip from us to you.
Before the Wheel of Fortune became an American game show starring Pat Sajak and Vanna White, it was a medieval concept referring to a wheel spun by the goddess of Fate. The wheel would determine the fate of mortals. Nowadays, the Wheel of Fortune determines whether you win a brand-new car or a trip to Hawaii. The point is, spinning wheels are symbolically linked to destiny.
In the case of our protagonist, his attempt at spinning the wheel is not really about the jackpot money. It's about saving the woman he loves, Laura. Having the wheel stop at the correct number, therefore, is a matter of life or death for him, and once he begins pressing the wheel, he believes that he has control over life and death. He has control over the wheel and, thus, literally has control over fate. His refusal to make a decision may be interpreted as paralytic shock or as intoxication with the concept of having some measure of free will. Regardless, he has broken the rules of the bingo game by refusing to relinquish the button, and we may interpret the ending as a punishment.
"King of the Bingo Game" is a doomed story from the start. Although the protagonist momentarily believes that he really can control his destiny, he's ultimately trapped in a "fixed" world. The world is like the movie he watches – no matter how many times he watches sees the movie, it will always play out the same way.
The protagonist has seen this particular movie three times. He knows exactly how it will end. Yet he cannot help wondering what would happen "if a picture got out of hand" (8). This indicates that despite the rigidity of a movie and of a life where "everything is fixed," the protagonist is still hopeful and still willing to dream about free will. We see this dream borne out later when the protagonist refuses to relinquish the button because he dreams of the ability to control his own destiny.
Scholars have suggested that this woman (from the movie, remember?) metaphorically represents the protagonist and Laura. As the woman is tied to the "white beam," so the protagonist and Laura are similarly tied to socioeconomic forces beyond their control. Remember, "Everything is fixed."
Did you think it was odd that the winning number is a double zero? We certainly did, and we think it reflects the ultimate hopelessness of the entire situation. (This interpretation would support the idea that the protagonist was screwed to begin with, no matter what action he chose to take.) It is even more ironic that the wheel actually stops on the double zero once the button is wrestled from the protagonist. At that particular moment, you can think about the double zero as representing a double loss: the protagonist and Laura, who are both doomed.
We thought Ralph Ellison pulled a neat literary trick towards the end with the curtain coming down on the stage. But we should back up for a moment. As the protagonist moves from the audience to the stage, he goes from being a spectator to being an actor. This carries all sorts of interesting implications, namely, that once on stage he is now able to act. He is able to control the button that controls the wheel that controls his fate. Unfortunately, every show must come to an end, and for our protagonist, that end comes the traditional way: with the curtain coming down.
In "King of the Bingo Game," the glaring light of the stage constitutes a space where the protagonist is able to experience revelation. In other words, his literal shift from sitting in the darkness to standing in the light corresponds to his mental shift from entrapment to transcendence, and from ignorance to knowledge.
No, there are no actual trains in "King of the Bingo." But there are two imaginary ones. We see the first one relatively early in the story, as the protagonist falls asleep and has a dream based on an incident in his childhood. As a boy in the South, he used to run in front of trains on the tracks before jumping off to the side. In his dream, however, he sees "with terror that the train had left the track and was following him right down the middle of the street, and all the white people laughing as he ran screaming" (9). We interpret this incident as being associated with the oppression he experiences as a African-American man in the South at this time. The train becomes a metaphor for the oppressive system he is trapped in, the system that he is trying to escape but ultimately cannot.
We see another train in the text (in paragraph 74) as the protagonist stands on stage and screams back at the raging audience. He feels as though he is running on train tracks with Laura in his arms but cannot leave the tracks or outrun the train. Again, the train is a metaphor for the system he is trying to escape, only this time Laura's life also depends on breaking free of the system. As a side note, this is a beautiful example of the musical talent Ellison brings to the text. We can view the recurring train as a type of literary riff. (See "Writing Style" for more on the musical influences in "King of the Bingo Game.")
The entire story is told from the point of view of a man we only know as "the protagonist" or "King of the Bingo Game." We stay with him throughout the story as he smells, hears, thinks, or moves. Most importantly, we fully enter into his consciousness as he presses the button controlling the spinning bingo wheel. Although we are able to follow his logic and train of thought, we are reminded by the interjections from the audience what it must look like from their point of view.
This is where the third person point of view becomes more effective than a first person point of view which would have put us in the protagonist's head all the time. Think also of the final moments of the story, when the protagonist is oblivious to the policeman moving in position to strike him. We see that policeman positioning himself; we know what the protagonist does not.
Now, there's also a meta-narrative at play here. Although we may empathize with the audience (we can see how they'd think the protagonist looks pretty odd up on stage, refusing to let go of the button), we are also given insight into the protagonist's thoughts. We experience his revelations concerning the wheel. We feel for him as he tries to share his secret with the audience, and we are sad and concerned for him at the end when he is brutally hit. In other words, the meta-narrator is accomplishing what the protagonist cannot.
As readers, we too are a type of audience. Unlike the audience in the bingo hall, however, we do have access to the protagonist's thoughts, and we are capable of empathizing with him. Neat, huh?
The first few pages of the story serve as a prelude to the real action, namely, the bingo game. During this time, we learn the protagonist's situation, which is the "initial situation" that the story will attempt to resolve.
In the initial situation, we learn that the protagonist is a man who has been beaten down by the system. He can't get a job because he doesn't have a birth certificate, and without a job his only means of making money is the bingo game. When the game begins and we learn the protagonist is using five cards, it's the first point of real conflict in the story. The protagonist is fighting back – albeit it in a small way – against an unfair system.
The protagonist's tactic of using five cards works, and he is called up on stage. This complicates matters as it extends the story and brings us closer to the climax.
This part of the story is climactic for its elements of rebirth and self-actualization. The protagonist is empowered as he holds the button controlling the spinning wheel and believes he can now control his own destiny. At about the same time, he also renounces his past by forgetting his name, the name that "had been given him by the white man who had owned this grandfather a long lost time ago down South" (66). He becomes King of the Bingo instead, simultaneously in control of the spinning wheel and beholden to it.
Pressure continues to mount as the protagonist refuses to allow the wheel to stop spinning. The bingo caller and the audience become increasingly angry, and we are unclear as to how the situation will be resolved.
When the police show up, you know the story is coming to an end soon. The two police officers succeed in wresting the button from the protagonist. One of them smiles at the protagonist as the wheel comes to a rest at the double zero (the number it needs to land on in order for the protagonist to win the jackpot).
As soon as the curtain comes down on the stage, the protagonist is struck on the head. The protagonist is now back to a position of weakness, right where he started. Almost like a spinning circle.