“King of the Bingo Game” registers the crisis in consciousness of an unnamed African-American man who has recently migrated to a northern city, which, he feels, does not provide the communality that his former life down South had afforded him. Unemployed, he has gone to a movie to immerse his worries in fantasy, with the additional hope of winning bingo money to pay the doctor bills for his ailing wife.
Straying from the film he has been watching through repeated screenings, his attention fixes on the cinematic apparatus that must be ignored in order to ensure hermetic encapsulation in the mass-mediated dreams it provides: “It was strange how the beam always landed right on the screen and didn’t mess up and fall somewhere else. But they had it all fixed. Everything was fixed.” (Ellison 124). This thought conflates a self-assuring conviction of stability, constancy, and security and a subtly bitter recognition of institutionalized unfairness. However, the melodrama on screen stimulates an erotic reverie of narrative rupture that reflects the attractive prospect of conditions going out of control: “If a picture got out of hand like that those guys up there would go nuts” (125). It is unclear—and this blurring is suggestive—whether “up there” refers to the characters on the screen or to the locus of the power that sets the story in motion at the site of projection (in both the cinematic and psychological senses of that term). In any case, these two observations introduce the dialectic at the heart of Ellison’s story between the need for fixity and the desire to be out of control. This need and this desire will organize the man’s cognitive experience as he abandons himself to the Wheel. (Although Ellison does not capitalize the word, designating it by the uppercase serves to emphasize both its iconographic identification with the American socioeconomic system, and the way the man receives his experiences as epiphany and theophany.)
His attention continuing to wander, the man has a nostalgic reverie of walking along a railway trestle as a boy down South, “getting off the trestle to solid ground just in time” as a train looms down on him. But this reverie quickly turns to nightmare as he imagines “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” (125). This fantasy proves darkly prophetic inasmuch as it constitutes the violation of programmatic fixity (i.e., going off the tracks), just as he will violate the rational order of his mind and has already begun to transgress the regulations and protocols of the game by having played more than the single card each patron is allotted.
The rest of the story records the stages of the man’s psychotic break and the conflation of delusion and revelatory higher truth it bestows. His entry into the limelight and before the crowd is described in terms that announce the quasi-mystical experience he is about to undergo. Announced, with some irony, as “one of the chosen people,” he is momentarily blinded and feels himself “moved into the spell of some strange, mysterious power” that is nevertheless “as familiar as the sun” (127–128). Even before engaging the Wheel, he has an overawed presentiment of its pervasive influence—that it has “determined” not only his life but also the life of his parents and, by implication, the fate of his race. But as he settles himself, he begins to feel “a profound sense of promise, as though he were about to be repaid for all the things he’d suffered all his life” (129). With fear and trembling he activates the Wheel, soon discovering that he cannot release himself from the mechanism, as though it were “a high-powered line in his naked hand” (129). Absorbed into the power of the wheel’s increasing speed of rotation, he feels “a deep need to submit, to whirl, to lose himself in its twirl of color”—to “let it be” (129).
Despite his absorption into pure energy, the man is sundered by self-doubt. He shifts away from thinking about the proper moment to release the button so that the Wheel will stop on the number required to win the prize. He becomes preoccupied with the mechanism itself, convinced that to refrain from releasing the button is the way to control destiny (a feat superior to winning a particular jackpot, however much it is needed). Maintaining control becomes more important than gaining reward (130). As if he were a prophet descended from “a high hill into a valley of people,” he receives the mockery of the crowd, who ridicule his evidently delusional state (130). But he is in the grip of a theophanic ecstasy: “This is God! This is really truly God!” Transmogrified into a visionary, he feels they will not let him “tell them the most wonderful secret in the world” (130–131). At the same time, the Wheel is an instrument of self-imposed torture, reminiscent of those in underworld myths. The man feels himself “a long thin black wire that was being stretched and wound . . . until he wanted to scream; wound, but this time himself controlling the winding and the sadness and the shame” (132). At this point he begins to believe that as long as he holds on, his sick wife, Laura, will continue to live. But this fixed idea destabilizes as did those before it, shifting into a paranoid fantasy that literalizes his collapsing ego structure in images of his body being invaded and stomped on.
Ellison scholars who have analyzed the story have tended to read it as a precursor to many of the imaginal motifs and thematic preoccupations of Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (begun a year later, in 1945), whose protagonist is another unnamed African American who has journeyed north and is, in existential terms, modernity’s Everyman. Ellison’s story offers many salient similarities to his novel, although in an abbreviated form that owes as much to the author’s still-developing imagination as to the intrinsic limits of the short story form. There is, for example, the theme of racial shame. The man recognizes that he is causing the crowd to feel shame because he, too, has often felt ashamed “of what Negroes did” (132). Furthermore, the shame of recognizing oneself an object that lacks autonomy, agency, and self-determination is an experience that the Invisible Man must learn to resolve. In the short story, Ellison’s bingo player desperately clings to the fleeting conviction that “he and only he could determine whether or not it [the prize] was to be his” (130). In both works such convictions are put in dialectical relation with the regenerative possibility that resides in contingency. That is, both works represent the lack of self-determination as namelessness, the unexpected loss of an identity conferred by others. The social aspect of this condition is indicated by the fact that the man cannot find employment because he lacks a birth certificate, an institutional authentication of his existence, but during the crisis it becomes a matter of more intense existential realization: “It was a sad, lost feeling to lose your name, and a crazy thing to do” (132). The man is not aware, as the Invisible Man comes to be, that the absence of identity is an opportunity fraught with perilous, but rich, possibilities for self-definition.
A few other parallels between story and novel may serve to illuminate further the continuity of Ellison’s preoccupations. The story converges at the electrifying site of an illusory prospect of reward for the shamefulness of racial abjection and the competitive antagonism it provokes between members of the abjected group (“They wanted the prize, that was it. They wanted the secret for themselves”). Similarly, a memorable incident early in the novel links this abjection and antagonism at the site of a frenzied competition between black youths grabbing false gold coins off an electrified rug. It is also worth noting that the $36.90 jackpot the man aspires to make his own by merging with the spinning wheel of fortune shares an uncanny numerical progression with the 1,369 light bulbs that the Invisible Man keeps lit by tapping into the corporate energy of Consolidated Power and Light. The passage in which the bingo player looks down on a mass of “poor nameless bastards” who “didn’t even know their own names” and begins to have “a sense of himself that he had never known before” (133) looks toward the crucial passage in Ellison’s novel when the Invisible Man, in the course of orating to a Harlem crowd, recognizes that his vocation is to delineate the uncreated features of his race. The protagonist of the novel, however, does not succumb to a delusion of grandeur under the pressure of his desperation and thus does not feel that “he was running the show, by God!” or that he embodies and vouchsafes the luck of his audience. Neither does the Invisible Man begin to feel, as the bingo player seems to, that he has the thaumaturgic power of kings to make someone “Live!” by his fiat (133).
But there will not be, there cannot be, an analog to the melodramatic climax of the film the bingo player has watched again and again. There will be no heroic rescue of the imperiled beloved from her bed of duress. However, a hint of silent film melodrama can be sensed when the combination of the howling crowd and the fixed rotation of the Wheel conjures back the runaway train of his earlier reverie. He sees himself carrying Laura running down the tracks just ahead of a subway train, which objectifies death’s terrible inexorability (134). This is not the only oblique, subtle evocation of the movies. The man’s delusional but heightened perceptions cause him momentarily to identify the flashing, spinning Wheel with the film spool in the projection booth. In an almost farcical interlude reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, the man briefly evades the police by “running in a circle” as if he had become the Wheel.
Brought to a halt, the man suffers the blows of police clubs as his totemic deity continues to revolve “serenely above,” until coming to rest, inevitably, on double zero, the winner’s ambiguous number. Ellison’s ironic denouement is as heavy-handed as the cops when, just before the final blow falls, he has the man expect “he would receive what all the winners received.” More skilled is Ellison’s final sentence, whose phrasing evokes bloodshed without literally showing it: “and he knew even as it slipped out of him that his luck had run out on the stage” (136).
Deutsch, Leonard J. “Ellison’s Early Fiction.” Negro American Literature Forum 7, no. 2 (Summer 1973): 53–57.
Ellison, Ralph. “King of the Bingo Game.” In Flying Home and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1996.
Urquhart, Troy A. “Ellison’s ‘King of the Bingo Game.’ ” Explicator 60, no. 4 (Summer 2002): 217–219.