55 pages 1 hour read

Ralph Ellison

King of the Bingo Game

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1944

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Summary: “King of the Bingo Game”

American author Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) wrote “King of the Bingo Game” in 1944. The short story was originally published in the New York literary journal Tomorrow in November 1944 and is widely considered a precursor to his classic novel Invisible Man (1953). Ellison was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance and is considered one of the most important American authors of the 20th century. Invisible Man won a National Book Award in 1953, and Ellison was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 1985. This guide uses the version of the story published in the 1981 edition of the Norton Anthology for page number and quotation references.

“King of the Bingo Game” takes place in a movie theater that doubles as a bingo hall and is set in the author’s present day. The protagonist is an unnamed Black man who has recently moved from Rocky Mont, North Carolina, to an unnamed city in the North (possibly New York) and feels uncomfortable with the culture, which he perceives as unfriendly. The story is told in the third-person past tense, but it sometimes switches to first-person present tense narration for the protagonist’s inner monologues.

When the story opens, the protagonist is sitting in a movie theater, watching a movie he has already seen three times. He is hungry because he is broke. He thinks about asking some of the people around him to share their snacks and drinks but knows that such behavior is not common in the North like it is in the South. His mood is anxious; he worries that he has no money to pay for the doctors his partner Laura needs and about not being able to get a job because he lacks a birth certificate. He repeats the phrase “I ain’t crazy” to himself twice, but the narrator notes that he has doubts (469).

He falls asleep during the movie and has a nightmare about a train running off its tracks and chasing him down a hill while white people stand around him and laugh. The older man next to him wakes him up and tells the protagonist that he was yelling in his sleep. The man offers the protagonist whiskey, which makes him lightheaded since he is drinking it on an empty stomach.

The protagonist moves a seat at the front of the theater as the film ends and the bingo game begins. He is playing with five cards, which is frowned upon, but he is desperate to win so that he can afford medical care for Laura. On stage, a man with a microphone calls out the bingo numbers by pressing a button attached to a cord that spins a large wheel. Whatever number the wheel stops on is the number he calls. The protagonist has trouble keeping track of his five cards and worries that he has missed some of the numbers. Eventually, he calls out “Bingo!” and the man with the microphone invites him onstage. The alcohol, excitement, and desperation the protagonist feels put him in a surreal state of mind. As he walks onstage, he feels he is under the spell “of some strange, mysterious power” (471).

The jackpot is $36.90, which in 2022 is equivalent to almost $560. To win, the protagonist must spin the wheel himself and have it land on double zero. The prospect of winning such a large amount of money increases his anxiety to a fever pitch, and he fears that he will lose and make a fool of himself. He nearly runs from the stage, but the man with the microphone calls him back, making some jokes at his expense for being an out-of-towner. The man hands him the button attached to the cord that controls the wheel.

The protagonist has watched the wheel spin many times and has decided that he needs to give it a short, quick spin. He has seen others hold the button for too long and knows that approach does not work. When he presses the button, he realizes he cannot let go. A million thoughts race through his mind; his life and the lives of all the generations that have come before him rest on the outcome of the wheel. Laura’s life depends on the outcome of his spin. He almost passes out from the rush of emotions he feels.

Meanwhile, the other winners are getting angry, yelling him to stop the wheel and let someone else have a turn, but he has entered a delusional state. He knows that many of the people who come to the bingo game do so to make rent or get money to feed their families, but the main character is suddenly filled with a new sense of potency, though it is an illusion. As the wheel spins, he yells, “This is God!” (473).

The audience becomes increasingly agitated. As he cries out to Laura, begging her to live, he realizes that the people in the audience—who are Black like him—are ashamed of his behavior. He thinks about all the times he has felt the same way, ashamed of the behavior of other Black folks. However, he is in the thrall of the spinning wheel and cannot stop. Two uniformed men (probably police officers) come on stage and chase him, trying to get him to release the button. One tackles him and steps on his wrist until the button falls out of his hand. When the wheel stops, “without surprise,” the protagonist sees that it has landed on double zero (477).

He is relieved and believes that his life is about to change; he will win the prize, just as any winner would, since he followed the rules of the game. He does not see the second officer standing behind him, ready to kick him in the head. He feels the pain, and as the curtain descends, he realizes his luck has run out.

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By Ralph Ellison