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"King of the Bingo Game"



Language & Form


Main Issues

Study Questions



Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) (click here for details)


1944, first published in Tomorrow 4 (1944): 29-33. Reprinted in Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America. Eds. James A. Emanuel & Theodore L. Gross. New York: Free Press, 1968.

Language & Form

Short story. English. Third person narrator. Modernist/Surrealist fiction with Postmodern elements of dream fantasy and Postcolonial themes and concerns.


A young black man, who remains nameless throughout the story, cannot find work in the factories of WWII urban America because he has no birth certificate. Pressed by his wife's urgent need for medical care, he visits a movie theatre where he participates in a Bingo game, hoping to win it by keeping extra cards. As a winner of the card game, he is then given a chance at a jackpot of $36.90, which he can win by spinning the bingo wheel and having it land on "00." In a mad but grand gesture, he refuses to relinquish the cord and button that control the wheel, pressing the button so the wheel keeps spinning and preventing it from landing on any spot. His quixotic performance is ended by the intervention of the police and a falling curtain which crushes his head, ending his game and, presumably, his life.

Main Issues

  • myths v. realities of life in modern American society
  • fantasy life of the postmodern subject and its relations to mass-media products such as films and other forms of entertainment
  • Bingo game and wheel as symbolic representations of the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of the subjects of modern free-market democracies
  • ambiguous role of film and entertainment as misleading ideology and as revelation of the problems of ideology
  • specific influence of films like Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • questioning of values associated with dualities like light/darkness, freedom/slavery, black/white, North/South, urban/rural, madness/sanity, real/imaginary
  • movement of the protagonist's consciousness from a naive belief in freedom to a confrontation with the reality of limited or non-existent opportunities
  • postcolonial concerns applied to the portrayal of life in the post-Civil War, emancipated, free-market, democratic America of the twentieth century
  • ambition of the story to portray the situation of all Americans, regardless of race or regional origin

Study Questions

What is the significance of the protagonist's hunger at the very opening of the story? How about his need of a doctor for his wife? Where does the action of the story take place? What may be the significance of this setting? How is the setting of Depression/World War II era significant to the concerns of the story?

Who is the protagonist? What do we know about his background and origins? Is it important that we never learn his real name? What does such namelessness suggest? Is it important that the protagonist is African-American? Why does he miss the South? What does that suggest about the opportunities open to him as a free man living in the North? How does the story comment on such issues as the agrarian South of the past, the industrialized North of the present, and the outcomes of the Civil War? What does the story suggest about American history and its supposed social and technological progress? Is the protagonist a free man?

How is this short story influenced by film and how does it characterize the role of films in American society? How does the story embody imagery and concerns from films such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939)?

What is the significance of the movie theatre where the action of the story takes place? How are the movies connected to concerns of the story and the problems faced by the protagonist? Do the movie and the theatre play any role in such problems? What does Ellison suggest through the details of the movie the protagonist watches? How is the idea of freedom related to the products of mass-media like the movies?

In the action-adventure movie, the hero probes with the beam of a flashlight to locate a trapdoor. What does this trapdoor stand for? How about the flashlight? How is this movie connected to the lives of the people in the audience who are primarily black and poor? Does the audience identify with the hero of the film and his actions? What messages does the film convey to them?

What is the significance of the image of the woman who is tied down in the movie? Why are the people in the audience disappointed when the hero unties her? What do they want? Why? What is their fantasy? Is the woman's situation related to their own? If so, what are the implications of their desires? Are those desires enabled or discouraged by the film?

In the movie, what does Ellison suggest through the sharp contrast between the darkness of the room and "the beam of a flashlight"? In the theater, what does Ellison represent through the white projection beam overhead? What is the function of "light" in this story? Is the light beam in any way related to the spinning wheel? When the protagonist stumbles onto the stage, what does the "light so bright and sharp" mean for him? What is the "strange, mysterious power" associated with that light? Is this light friendly or hostile? What effects does Ellison seek to accomplish by using the dual images of light and darkness? Are there other instances of such image polarities/oppositions in the story? What is Ellison alluding to by means of those images?

What is the symbolic meaning of the projection that always lands right on the screen? What is the significance of everything being "fixed" by the white projection beam? If the protagonist sees the mechanical projector as life's controlling force, why is it so? What lies behind the images of the projection reel and the train wheel? What do they stand for? Is this related to the historical context of the story? American history? Technology? How?

What is the meaning of the recurrent nightmares of the protagonist who imagines trains trying to run him and his wife down? Why trains? What do trains symbolize? How are they connected to American history? What is intended by these images?

What realization does the protagonist have while in the theatre? What is meant by the idea that "They had it all fixed. Everything was fixed"? Who controls his destiny? How? How is the Bingo game and its wheel related to the representation of those forces?

What does the Bingo game stand for? The wheel? Does everyone have an equal chance of winning? Why or why not? Why is the protagonist called "one of the chosen people"? Is there irony in that designation? Is he finally in control when he is handed over the button? Why does he feel like getting away? Why does he feel like a fool? Is he being mocked in some way? Why does he feel alone? Is there meaning in numbers such as the amount of the jackpot, $36.90? How about the double zero ("00") designating the winning space on the wheel? What does that suggest? When the wheel does finally land on the double zero, why is it said that "he would receive what all the winners received"? Is that related to the idea that "everything was fixed"?

Why is it said that the wheel draws him into its power as it spins? Why does he feel "helplessness" and "a deep need to submit"? What does he realize suddenly? Why does he say of the bingo wheel, "This is God!"? What does he mean? What has he discovered? What are the implications of that discovery? How is this "God" related to the Bingo wheel that "had always been there, even though he had not been aware of it, handing out the unlucky cards and numbers of his days"? What kind of a God is this?

What does the protagonist think he can accomplish by continuing to press the button? How does this alter the usual functioning of the wheel, of the game, of "God," of society? What is the "most wonderful secret in the world" which he has discovered? What are the implications and symbolism behind his desire to press the button forever? What does the control of the button represent? How about the continuous spinning of the wheel? What happens to the divisions on the wheel (between winning and losing numbers) as the wheel spins without stopping? Who wins? Who loses? How is this connected to the social problems and the economic and historical context which are the concerns of the story? What does he mean by saying "I'll show you how to win. I mean to show the whole world how it's got to be done"? How is he redefining the rules of the game? What is the game which he means to alter?

What is the significance of the image of the protagonist when he is described "like a long thin black wire that was being stretched and wound upon the bingo wheel"? Is it significant that he begins to bleed out of his nose? Why does he call himself a "king"? What has he, symbolically, become? How does this transformation qualify the nature of his revelations to the audience? What does he mean when he shouts, "Live! ... Live, Laura, baby. ... Live!" Has he acquired healing powers that can save his wife? Is his message related to ideas of physical or spiritual salvation? How does the audience react to his antics? Are they interested in what he has to say? What do they want? What do they say?

As the police try to catch him, what is the meaning of his running around in a circle while holding on to the cord? What happens at the end? Why does he see a man winking and another quickly stepping out of the way? What's the literal purpose of letting the curtain down? What symbolic functions does the image play in the story? What happens to the protagonist? What is meant by the idea that "his luck had run out on the stage"?

Does the protagonist accomplish anything through his sacrifice? Are any significant messages delivered by his seemingly insane and foolish behavior? Does Ellison suggest any kind of meaningful resistance to the power of the God of the Wheel? Is the protagonist merely another fool falling victim to the wheel's inescapable sway? Is it only blacks who are enslaved to the power represented by the wheel? Who is free and who is enslaved? What are the implications concerning the ways of life and socioeconomic organization of contemporary capitalist societies? Does Ellison see any solutions? What may those be?


to come

Last updated: July 9, 2013

Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jung-Joon Ihm in the creation of the early versions (2001) of this page


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