Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Ralph Ellison’s story combines themes familiar from modern literature with a theme that was common in the literature of the ancient world. The modern themes are the alienation of the individual from society and the criticism of that society as crass and materialistic; the ancient theme is the inability of the individual to control fate.
The protagonist is not part of the industrial North’s society in which he now lives. In the North Carolina from which he came, one could live by the effort of one’s body and hands. In the big city, documentation is needed before one can get a job, and the main character is cut off from the money that he needs to help his ailing wife because of this circumstance. The elaborate procedure by which one wins the bingo game mimics the maze of requirements of the urban world; it is not enough to get five bingo numbers in a row—one must also spin the wheel and have it stop in the right place to win even a small jackpot.
The black protagonist is a person amid a largely white society, another element that keeps him from getting a job and being accepted in the city. The bingo announcer makes fun of his rural origins and calls him “boy,” emphasizing the difference between him and the society in which he lives, while holding him up as a figure of fun for the audience to laugh at.
Even the black members of the audience deride the protagonist; their behavior establishes the point that he is not being...
(The entire section is 485 words.)
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