King of the Bingo Game by Ralph Ellison

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King of the Bingo Game Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A young black man sits in a movie theater in New York waiting for the featured film to end. He has come to the big northern city from North Carolina but has been unable to find work because he does not have a birth certificate. His wife is ill, and he is hoping to win the bingo game that is played at the end of the feature so that he can take her to a doctor. He has not eaten all day, and the smell of the peanuts that another viewer is eating increases his hunger. Two men near him are drinking liquor, and he wishes that he had some, remembering how people used to share with one another down south. He drifts off to sleep but has a nightmare, which causes him to shout. The men who are drinking ask him to be quiet and offer him some whiskey, which he takes.

After the feature ends, the lights come on, a curtain hides the screen, and an announcer and an attendant come out to preside over the bingo game. Players who get “bingo” climb onto the stage and spin a large wheel by means of an electric switch. If the wheel stops at double zero, a player wins the jackpot, which is now $36.90. The young man plays five bingo cards, wins, and mounts the stage.

He finds being on stage confusing. The lights are blinding, he does not understand the jokes and comments of the announcer, and the crowd laughs at him. Even the smell of the announcer’s hair oil unsettles him. As he presses the button that controls the wheel, he is drawn into its whirl of light and color. He realizes that so long as he presses the button that makes the wheel spin, he controls it—that he is the “King of the Bingo Game.” So long as he keeps spinning the wheel, he controls his fate; his wife will be all right.

The young man’s thoughts are unknown to the announcer and the audience, who grow impatient. The crowd wants him to finish his turn, and the announcer tells him that he is taking too long, but he brushes the man away, then calls him back and explains that he is going to show everyone how to win the bingo game. He shouts, urging his wife to live, and the audience, thinking him crazy, quiets for a moment, then begins to taunt him again.

Two men in uniform approach him from the side of the stage, wrestle him to the floor, and take the button and cable away from him. The wheel stops on double zero. One of the men signals to the other, who hits the young man on the head. Just before he loses consciousness, he realizes that his luck has ended.

Summary

(Short Stories for Students)

"King of the Bingo Game" opens with a man sitting in a movie theater watching a movie he has already seen. He is hungry, and he can smell the peanuts that the woman in front of him is eating. Readers are able to access his thoughts as he envisions being in the South where he could ask the woman for a peanut and she would give him one. He also thinks the same thing about a pair of men who are on his right, drinking wine. He is broke and his wife, Laura, is sick and dying, Watching the movie, he thinks about how the characters in the movie are able to escape their predicaments, but he is not. He also thinks of what would happen if the woman in the movie were to take off her clothes.

He falls asleep and dreams that he is back in the South, where he lived when he was a boy. He dreams that a train is bearing down on him. Although he jumps off the tracks, the train follows him onto the highway and down the street. He wakes up screaming, and an old man next to him gives him a drink of whiskey. As the movie ends, a bingo game begins. The protagonist has brought five cards with him; he worries that the bingo-caller would not like this if he knew, but he needs to get money for a doctor for his wife and he needs the extra chances. Although he becomes flustered trying to keep up with the numbers being called, he ends up getting bingo, and has a chance to spin the bingo wheel in order to win the day's jackpot. Initially afraid that he has marked the wrong numbers, he is reassured as the authorities confirm his victory.

While on the stage, the...

(The entire section is 1,152 words.)