“King of the Bingo game” by Ralph Ellison is about a man, in desperate need of money, cheating at a bingo game. More importantly, the story revolves around a desperate man seeking sanity and solution in a world he cannot control. This desperate and futile search for answers is what ultimately leads him to his demise.
The backdrop of the story is during World War II. This time was particularly chaotic as the war is pulling on the economic resources of everyone. It is more chaotic for the Bingo King as his wife is sick and he needs money for her care. He cannot work in the factories, as he has no birth certificate. The last chance he has is a Bingo game being held in a movie theater. This is the place where his life will end. This is the place where the contradictions of freedom and slavery, wealth and poverty, Sanity and madness will all meet.
A big factor of this story in the race of the main character. He is a black man living from the south. This is the 1940’s; hence slavery has been abolished for some time. Yet, The Bingo King is still a slave to something else. He has an inability to make money, yet is in desperate need of it. He cannot work in the factories; hence he is “useless” to society. There is a promise of money from a game; hence he places all his hopes into it. The slavery in this story is slavery to capitalism. There is this illusion that one can make it rich on one’s own merits. Yet, as Bingo King himself say’s in reference to the Wheel, “This is God”.
This is the contradiction to the standard idea of equal rights and freedom that America is commonly personified. The idea that all men are created equal and are free to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is all dashed apart by the wheel, which flippantly controls the ebb and flow of life and fortune.
The Bingo King, upon realizing this, realizes that his only hope for sanity and fortune is through this wheel, which he now believes controls all things. An idea like freedom or equality seems laughable in the face of this machine, which deals out fortune or loss on a whim. Upon seeing this, the Bingo King realizes that only through the constant spinning of the wheel will his life have any meaning. This is the failure of sanity, which leads him to his death.
In a way, the journey that the Bingo king undertakes is parallel to that of the Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s classic play. Faustus is a noble and proud man of science. One notable characteristic about Faust is that he has a deep thirst for knowledge and understanding. This is a noble and proud endeavor, not one that would be considered wrong or sick by any standards. The problem comes with the methods that he uses to gain that knowledge. In his thirst, he signs his soul over to the demon Mephistopheles so that he may be granted powers not meant for mortal man. Over the course of the story, Faustus takes a journey that leads him into arrogance and madness. The story comes to an end with a vision of Faustus being dragged kicking and screaming into hellfire.
There is a definite Faustian theme that prevails throughout “King of the Bingo Game”. Like Faust, the Bingo King starts on this journey for a noble endeavor. He wishes for the means to take care of his wife Laura. His motives are pure and honorable, and he seeks no more than the money needed to take care of his sick wife. As he reaches the bingo wheel, he sees the power that it holds over his own life. He sees that life is simply a matter of fate, controlled by chance and whim of luck. The Bingo King sees this “whim of luck” as God. So by his reasoning, if he controls the wheel, he becomes God. It is then that he becomes mad with a sense of false power.
We see this from his thoughts he has concerning the crowd in the theater. As they heckle and jeer him from his resistance to leave the stage, the Bingo King becomes more and more inwardly hostile towards them:
They had been playing the bingo game day in and night out for years, trying to win rent money or hamburger change. But not one of those wise guys had discovered this wonderful thing….
Now he faced the raging crowd with defiance… He was running the show, by God! They had to react to him, for he was their luck. This is me, he thought. Let the bastards yell.
Ralph Ellison, King of the Bingo Game
He looks at the crowd and he sees them as fools. He does this because he thinks that he has found the answer. This is far from the truth, as he has simply gone mad. Like Faust, he believes that he is in possession of all the answers. This is far from the truth. He sees the glamour of the Bingo wheel as the power over the universe. Others see it as just an opportunity for fun and a little money.
These are the two separate worlds that the wheel inhabits. There is the world of reality, where the wheel is just a game. Then there is the world that the Bingo King sees from his point of view. The world where he can become a god from winning this game and controlling this wheel. This is a world he came to out of desperation and madness, struggling to get money and a job and not being able to find a place within the world of the story.
This brings up the theme of Alienation. The Bingo King is living in a world that has no place for him. He has no birth certificate. Hence, he does not exist. And seeing the fact that he does not exist, the world has no use for him anywhere. He cannot gain work in a factory for this reason or gain work anywhere else. To the world, he is obsolete. For that reason, other people tend to ignore him.
Examples of this are the people in the theater who do not even acknowledge that he exists until the Bingo Game. One woman is eating peanuts right in front of him. He recalls his time in his hometown where he could simply ask someone for a few peanuts and they would gladly give it to him. He realizes that the situation is different here. This is the big city. No one cares if he exists or not. This is the big city. If he asks the woman for peanuts in this theater, she’ll ignore him, or tell him to get his own bag.
This Alienation is not due to the color of his skin. It is not because his descendents were of an “inferior race” or because of any preconceived stereotypes about his people. This alienation comes simply from the world he is living in now. Everyone is separate from each other. Everyone in the theater is separate. No one knows each other or has any real concern for each other. Their only concern is themselves and their own lives. All that is needed is to sate their own hungers or wants or needs. There is never a concern for their fellow man or giving to others simply out of the joy of giving. All is meant for one’s self.
The joke of the Jackpot, however, is how small the jackpot really is. The Jackpot of 36.90, even for the forties, is a small amount. The Bingo king really has no hope of saving his wife through this game, nor does he have any hope of getting out of the poverty that he is currently suffering. Yet the game is giving him this false hope that it is possible. This is once again going to the theme of desperation that is cast over him through his alienation. Bingo King has become so desperate, that he thinks he sees fortune where there is none.
This is the overarching theme of the story. That society alienates itself from others an as a result, the people of that society sees little hope. In seeing little hope, they give their lives for a cause that may not seem entirely valiant. Sadly, in the end, this is the fate of the Bingo King.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus. Oxford, England:
Oxford University Press, 1998.
Ellison, Ralph. “King of the Bingo Game.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.
By Richard Bausch. New York: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., 2005.