Bingo is a popular game among gamblers. In the King of Bingo Game, Ralph Ellison explores the role of the bingo game in the lives of African-Americans in the early 20th century. Set probably a few years before 1944, the story features a black man who moved to the North in search of money to finance the treatment of his sick wife named Laura. However, the nameless man cannot secure a job due to the lack of a birth certificate. As a consequence, he resorts to gambling to raise the money he desperately needs to pay for the medical bills of Laura. The narrator tries his luck on the bingo game in one of the theaters in town. It is at this theater that the author reveals to the audience the psychological situation of the protagonist and how such condition relates to his experiences as a black man. Throughout the text, Ellison skillfully uses symbols of the bingo game, the bingo wheel, a tied woman, and a train to advance the themes of racism and alienation in the lives of blacks in early 20th century America.
Right at the onset of the story, the author depicts the protagonist as an individual struggling to come to terms with an unfamiliar territory. As he waits excitedly for the commencement of the bingo game, he notices that other members in the theater are having fun. Notable examples are that of two men drinking wine next table and "a woman eating roasted peanuts smelled so good that he could barely contain his hunger"(line 1). This is in total contrast with the troubled psychological situation of the main character who obviously appears to be the only individual anxiously waiting for the start of the bingo so that he could try his luck on the jackpot to get money for food and medical bills for his wife. Additionally, the protagonist reveals that people in the North do not share as people in the South. He says, "Folks down South stuck together that way; they didn't even have to know you. But up here it was different"(lines 8-9). Such a shock is a manifestation of the physical, psychological, cultural isolation the protagonist experiences; in the North, life was characterized by individualism in contrast with the communal lifestyle the narrator was accustomed to in the South. Furthermore, the lack of certificate shows the extent to which African Americans are isolated. The absence of the name and birth certificate of the main character perhaps is a deliberate decision by Ellison to highlight the issue of lack of identity for blacks in America. As argued by Arquhart, a certificate shows the origin; thus, the narrator's lack of this vital document and name demonstrates the extent to which African Americans have been disenfranchised from the mainstream American society (217).
Game imagery is a widely used device in black literary works. The bingo game symbolizes the lives of African Americans under an oppressive economic system. The bingo is the last resort for the narrator to address his socioeconomic challenges. Despite his patience and optimism, the protagonist ends up with nothing after wasting so much time devising ways of securing a chance to run the wheel as a way of creating a winning opportunity. The narrator's desire to win money makes his mental status degenerate into a level where he is not even conscious of himself. This is total alienation. When he is given an opportunity to play the bingo, he fails to obey the rules, anticipating that taking long to press the stop button would secure him a jackpot win. As a result, he spends a considerable amount of time at the theater while pegging his life on chance. However, at the heart of the motif of game playing is the notion that African Americans live in an unfair and discriminatory socioeconomic situation but also that they are, like other mortals, victims of fate and chance. Besides, Ellison seems to urge blacks to break away from the cycle of despair and delusion to achieve self-respect and equally condemns African Americans for choosing quick ways of getting rich instead of progressive hard work (Hoeveler 39).
While the bingo game symbolizes the entire African America life in the context of the racial system, the bingo wheel represents the powerlessness of black people in America. For the narrator to win the jackpot, the bingo wheel must stop between the double zero. For him, the spinning of the wheels is intertwined with his destiny since it would determine the fate of his sick wife; spinning the bingo wheel is a matter of life and death. As he tries his luck at the bingo game, the audience is informed that he appears isolated on the stage. For instance, he takes unnecessarily too long to release the winning button, an act that not only violates the rules but also displeases the audience and the bingo caller. This demonstrates that he is new in this environment hence the alienation. The narrator, while on stage, also notes that "as though he had come down from a high hill into a valley of people, he heard the audience yelling"(43). Such a description of himself shows his level of confusion as enhanced by mental and cultural isolation. In the end, he is forced to end the game and, fortunately, the wheel lands on double zero, a winning result. However, he is denied the jackpot because he has broken the rules. The fact that the wheel determines the outcome underscores the futility of blacks' efforts of alleviating their socioeconomic problems in a racially segregated society. That no matter how hard they try, there seems to be no breakthrough due to various racially- motivated obstacles erected in their way.
Adding to the bingo wheel is the tied woman in the movie. Historically, women have been victims of oppression by a patriarchal society. The bound woman epitomizes society's brutality towards women. However, in the context of the story, Ellison may have had the situation of the protagonist and Laura in mind. Accordingly, he depicts them as people who are chained and brutalized by a callous external force. The callousness is represented in the two men who rejoice in the situation of the tied woman. In their conservation about the scene, the men opine:
"Wouldn't I like to have her tied up like that..."
"Hey! That fool's letting her loose!"(20-21).
In a broader sense, the tied woman represents the situation of African Americans in the context of racial domination. Due to racial subjugation, blacks, as epitomized by the protagonist and Laura, cannot find opportunities to address their socio-economic issues. Hence, their daily life is characterized by control and abuse, practices prevalent in black life in early 20th century America.
Besides the tied woman, the bingo wheel and the bingo game, the train is an important symbol in the story. In the first incident, the narrator reveals that he sees himself in a dream as a young boy walking along the railroad in the South. While walking, he looked back and realized with terror that "the train had left the track and was following him right down the middle of the street, and all the while people laughing as he ran screaming"(Lines 43-44). In paragraph 74, the train appears again while he is on stage attempting to win the bingo game. In the second incident, the protagonist is seen running with Laura in his arms on a railroad while people were screaming at him to get out of the rail track but he could not do so. Ellison's use of the train has something to do with the brutally oppressive racial system perpetrated by whites in the South. It implies that every day, blacks made efforts to run away from the racially oppressive system but failed. The appearance of the train in the life of the protagonist as a boy and also as a married man emphasizes that blacks experienced racial oppression in their entire lifetime. As a result, they continued living in a cycle of poverty due to the racially unequal economic system.
To achieve his literary objective, Ellison uses symbols of the bingo game, bingo wheel, a train, and tied woman to show how African Americans were alienated and racially discriminated during the early 20th century. The bingo game symbolizes alienation and the struggle for economic opportunities. The bingo wheel stands for an oppressive racial system that fixes fate for blacks. Similarly, the train represents the white domination that undermines the efforts of African Americans' struggle in improving their socioeconomic situations. The tied woman is symbolic of the various obstacles that black people faced on a daily basis due to racial domination. Overall, Ellison aims at urging black communities to continue improving their socioeconomic conditions through hard work and not peg their future on probabilistic methods such as gambling in spite of the difficulties faced under an unequal economic system.
Ellison, Ralph. "King of the Bingo Game." Kentucky Community and Technical College System, 2007, legacy.owensboro.kctcs.edu/crunyon/Eng262/07-paper/kobgtext.htm.
Hoeveler, Diane L. "Game Theory and Ellison's King of the Bingo Game." The Journal of American Culture, vol. 15, no. 2, 1992, pp. 39-42.
Urquhart, Troy. "Ellison's King of the Bingo Game." The Explicator, vol. 60, no. 4, 2002, pp. 217-219.
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