Study Guide

King of the Bingo Game Themes

By Ralph Ellison

  • Fate and Free Will

    "King of the Bingo Game" deals with the issue of fate through the lens of race. The protagonist is a downtrodden African-American man who feels as though he has been finally given the opportunity to control his own destiny. This rapidly unravels, however. "King of the Bingo Game" raises the issue of how well a man can control his own destiny in an unfair system.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Why do you think the line "everything was fixed" comes relatively early in the novel? Does it help set up the later events or detract from them?
    2. Why does the protagonist want the wheel to continue spinning? Why can't he let go?
    3. What do you make of this passage? "Didn't they know that although he controlled the wheel, it also controlled him, and unless he pressed the button forever and forever and ever it would stop, leaving him high and dry, dry and high on this hard high slippery hill and Laura dead?" (65)
    4. How does the movie at the beginning affect your understanding of the story? You might want to think about a movie as the ultimate example of a fixed and fated system.

    Chew on This

    The movie suggests that the protagonist is doomed from the start – if "everything is fixed," it really doesn't matter that he attempts to alter his destiny vis-à-vis the bingo wheel.

  • Isolation

    "King of the Bingo Game" features a protagonist who experiences intense isolation. He is set apart from the other participants in the game both culturally and emotionally. As the story progresses, he is also set apart from them for his incredible revelation that he is unable to share. By the end of the story, we understand his isolation as operating both from a position of power and from a position of powerlessness. For, despite knowing this wonderful secret, the protagonist is only one man; he is ineffectual against the bigger system.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why does the protagonist feel isolated once he is on stage?
    2. How is the protagonist treated by other characters in the story (the audience, the bingo caller, etc.)? Are they unified in their opinion of him or are there a variety views?
    3. We see the protagonist as isolated from several of perspectives: culturally, emotionally, mentally, and physically (as he is on stage under the lights). Which is the most compelling? How do they integrate to completely isolate him?
    4. The protagonist wants to share his great secret with the world, the secret of how to win. What exactly is he alluding to? Why does he want to share it with everyone else?

    Chew on This

    The bingo caller fails to recognize the protagonist as a person.

    The protagonist tries his best to reach out to others in the bingo hall.

  • Madness

    "King of the Bingo Game" takes the position that you can find truth in madness. It's as though the protagonist went through an intense experience and discovered the meaning of life, only this was a hunger, depression, and liquor-induced mental experience, and he discovered what it was like to feel in control of his own destiny for the first time. Unfortunately, to the outside eye, this looks a lot like insanity. This story suggests there's something about the extreme nature of insanity that allows its possessor insights otherwise hidden from view.

    Questions About Madness

    1. How does the story alternate between the protagonist's madness and the reality of the movie hall?
    2. What elements combine to push the protagonist toward insanity?
    3. Pay attention to the language Ellison uses for the protagonist's descent into madness. Does it make sense? How can you tell what is happening the protagonist?

    Chew on This

    The protagonist is not insane.

    The protagonist is insane.

  • Rules and Order

    The world of "King of the Bingo Game" is governed by a grossly unfair set of rules that the protagonist eventually attempts to break. We're talking social rules, legal rules, unspoken rules, and even rules as specific as those of a simple bingo game. It's likely that those very bingo rules serve as a proxy for the rules of a white-dominated society; if this is the case, then the story illustrates the tremendous difficulty of attempting to break free of those rules during the time of the story.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What rules govern the bingo game? Which of those rules are actually followed?
    2. By refusing to let go of the button on the spinning wheel, is the protagonist actually breaking a rule or merely trying to subvert the game? Is there a difference?
    3. How does the bingo caller uphold the rules of the game?
    4. Can you identify larger rules governing the society the story takes place in?

    Chew on This

    According to the larger rules governing the protagonist's society, the night could have had no other outcome.

  • Race

    The theme of "Race" relates most strongly to the "Fate and Free Will" theme of this story. Given the protagonist's circumstances – as an African-American man in America before the Civil Rights era – his race has frequently defined his life opportunities and circumstances. "King of the Bingo Game" depicts the protagonist on a night that he vividly recalls the racial oppression he has been experiencing. The protagonist is able to momentarily escape his past and his situation by becoming "King."

    Questions About Race

    1. To what extent does race play a role in the story?
    2. Can you tell which characters are white and which are black? How?
    3. How does the protagonist view his own race?
    4. Is the protagonist somehow closer to members of his own race? How does he view other African-Americans?

    Chew on This

    When the protagonist is talking about showing the whole world how to win, he is talking about showing the whole world how to transcend the narrow categories of race.

    The protagonist feels completely disconnected from other African-Americans.