Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“King of the Bingo Game” is written in a naturalistic style and from a third-person, limited point of view. The first technique reinforces the gritty, realistic quality of the story, and the second puts the reader in the place of the protagonist and helps the reader to experience the confusion that he feels.
A naturalistic style dictates that a writer describe the physical reality of a scene, such as the first detail noted in the story, the smell of the peanuts that makes the protagonist hungry. Throughout the story, physical details predominate—the feeling of whiskey moving through the protagonist’s body, the blinding lights, the odor of the announcer’s hair oil, all compel the reader to see, feel, and even smell what the protagonist is experiencing.
The third-person, limited point of view conveys information about the story as it is seen by only one person, but allows Ellison to use language that that character himself would not use, unlike the first-person point of view, in which the vocabulary of the story must be that of the main character. The use of this technique means that the reader experiences the same feelings of bewilderment and excitement that the protagonist does, but they are presented in language more vivid than he himself might use. Because the protagonist does not feel himself to be a part of the world that he inhabits, the movie house, its patrons, and the procedure of the bingo game are a welter of disconnected...
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Race in the South
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, and during his childhood he encountered opposition from the city's white establishment. His mother was persecuted for her political activities on behalf of the Socialist Party Oklahoma's governor during Ellison's early years was the white supremacist "Alfalfa Bill" Murray. Murray established a very unfriendly atmosphere for blacks in Oklahoma, and the state saw at least one serious race riot during that period. Although Oklahoma is not a part of the South proper and was still Indian territory during the Civil War, the state has absorbed a Southern cultural heritage from its neighbors Texas and Arkansas. Part of this heritage included Jim Crow laws, the system of de jure and de facto (meaning unwritten but enforced) racial segregation laws that persisted until the 1960s.
Ellison believed an effort was made by the state to ensure that black students would not attend Oklahoma state universities by offering scholarships to promising students for study out of state. Ellison received such an offer and accepted it. He attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the most renowned black school in the country. While travelling by freight train to Alabama, Ellison was forced off the train in Decatur, Alabama. Decatur was the town in which the Scottsboro Boys were being prosecuted for the alleged rape of two white women aboard a freight train. Fearing the worst, Ellison fled and managed to...
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Narration and Point of View
"King of the Bingo Game" utilizes a third-person narrator who is inside the consciousness of the Bingo King. The narrator relates the Bingo King's thoughts and his memories. At first, the narration is relentlessly realistic, and almost naturalistic in its depiction of the mind of a poor, downtrodden, yet still-hopeful man. The introduction of his sick wife into the narrative gives the story a melodramatic tone.
However, as the story continues, the realism lessens and the narration approximates the consciousness of the Bingo King, becoming a mouthpiece for him as he is taken over by the power of the bingo wheel. "This is God! This is the really truly God!" the narrator tells us. ''He was reborn. For as long as he pressed the button he was The-man-who-pressed-the-button-who-held-the-prize-who-was-the-King-of-Bingo." But as the story ends, the narrative voice recedes, and as the power of the wheel is separated from the Bingo King by the authorities, the realistic narration that was present in the beginning of the story returns.
Ellison uses irony, a characteristic modernist device, throughout the story. It is ironic, for instance, that the number the Bingo King needs to hit in order to win the jackpot is double zero; "zero" being what American blacks felt they had received from the established white society. It is also ironic that the Bingo King's freedom from circumstances is attained...
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Compare and Contrast
1944: Many Southern black Americans move North in what is known as the "Great Migration" in an attempt to secure jobs.
1996: 915,900 immigrants enter the country, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and countless others sneak in illegally.
1944: In Smith v. Allwright, the Supreme Court rules that an American cannot be denied the right to vote because of his or her race. Southern states continue to prevent blacks from voting, however, using methods such as literacy tests and poll taxes.
1996: The Supreme Court holds that Congressional districts drawn specifically to ensure a racial majority are unconstitutional.
1943: A race riot occurs in Harlem on August 1.
1991: A jury acquits white Los Angeles policemen of the beating of black citizen Rodney King, triggering the worst violence and looting in U.S. history with over fifty deaths and fifty square miles of Los Angeles property devastated.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the ''Great Migration'' of African Americans from the South to the large Northern cities in the 1930s and 1940s. How does the character of the Bingo King represent those immigrants?
What was the racial makeup of New York City in the 1940s? Where did most black residents of the city live? Investigate the differences between the treatment of African Americans in the Northern areas of the country as compared to the practices in the South during this period.
Bingo and other forms of gambling have surged in popularity in recent years. Why do you think this is so? Are people's hopes for winning based on the same hopes that drive the Bingo King's behavior?
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What Do I Read Next?
Invisible Man, Ellison's only published novel, is one of the acknowledged classics of twentieth-century fiction. Published in 1952 and modeled on Ellison himself, the novel portrays a young black man in search of his own identity.
The short story "Sonny's Blues," (1957) by Ellison's contemporary, James Baldwin, tells the story of two African-American brothers in New York City. One, a high school teacher, has accommodated himself to living in white society, while the other, a jazz musician with a heroin problem, channels his frustrations and his ' 'blues'' into his music.
Published in 1940, Richard Wright's Native Son, is a much angrier and more pessimistic story than "Sonny's Blues" or Invisible Man. The novel draws a portrait of Bigger Thomas, a young black man driven to violence by the oppressive nature of white society.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Deutsch, Leonard J. "Ralph Ellison," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2. American Novelists since World War II, Gale Research, Inc, 1988.
Herman, David J. "Ellison's 'King of the Bingo Game': Finding Naturalism's Trapdoor," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, no. 1, September, 1991, pp 71-3.
Hersey, John, editor. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Real, Willi "King of the Bingo Game," in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century, edited by Peter Brack, B. R. Grimer, 1977.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale Research, Inc , Vol. 54, 1989, pp. 104-49.
A presentation of several critical essays examining Ellison's work.
O'Meally, Robert G The Craft of Ellison, Harvard University Press, 1980.
Presents a discussion of Ellison's development as an author.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
De Santis, Christopher C. “’Some Cord of Kinship Stronger and Deeper than Blood’: An Interview with John F. Callahan, Editor of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.” African American Review 34, no. 4 (2000): 601-621.
Hersey, John. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Hobson, Christopher Z. “Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth, and African American Prophecy.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 51, no. 3 (2005): 617-647.
Jackson, Lawrence. Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
McSweeney, Kerry. “Invisible Man”: Race and Identity. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.
Nadel, Alan. “Ralph Ellison and the American Canon.” American Literary History 13, no. 2 (2001): 393-404.
Porter, Horace A. Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.
Warren, Kenneth. So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Watts, Jerry Gafio. Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina...
(The entire section is 178 words.)