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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Fate and Determinism
In "King of the Bingo Game," Ellison explores the relationship between man and fate. The bingo wheel represents the ''Wheel of Fortune," an ancient image used to depict man's position among the fates. The concept of the wheel attempts to explain how a person can be fortunate and prosperous one day and destitute the next by positing that people are on a wheel, moving up and down unpredictably. This concept holds that any person who is experiencing difficulties should persevere because eventually that position will reverse. For the Bingo King, though, the Wheel is a joke that does not fulfill its assigned role. The Bingo King has been perpetually on the bottom. When the story opens, he is almost penniless, he is new to an unfamiliar and unfriendly city, and his wife is dying. He attempts to stack the odds in his favor by buying five bingo cards, but when that plan succeeds he is confronted by another difficult problem: how to make the bingo wheel stop on the double zero he needs in order to win the jackpot.
When he actually starts to spin the wheel, though, the Bingo King has a flash of understanding. Unless he continues to spin the wheel, thereby suspending its final judgment, he will again end up on the bottom: "high and dry, dry and high on this hard high slippery hill and Laura dead." Consequently, he decides to take control of his own fate by continuing to spin the wheel, deferring any judgement or decision...
(The entire section is 715 words.)