Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), best known for The Invisible Man, was a novelist and critic, who also wrote an anthology of essays on the works of William Faulkner, Richard Wright and the music of Duke Ellngton. Mr. Ellison received the National Medal of Arts in 1985.
Symbolism in literature can possess a universal meaning, or one recognized in different stories, or a personal meaning, a meaning that only makes sense within that piece of writing.
The way to tell if something is symbolic is whether it seems to speak to something greater than itself (such as, Robert Burns’ “My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose”).
Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game” has several symbols. The three I want to touch on today include the beam of light in the projection room, the bingo wheel, and the button.
The nameless protagonist in this story is in financial need; he has not eaten in days and his wife, Laura, is ill. In the opening of the story, his enjoyment of a racy picture-show is hampered by the projection light:
“It was strange how the beam always landed right on the screen and didn’t mess up and fall somewhere else. But they had it all fixed. Everything was fixed” (478).
As if they view the light as being in control of the storyline, the projection light is blamed for the racy scene being tamed instead of baiting the crowd’s desires. Later in the story, the light acts as a kind of antagonist, blinding him from seeing the audience and the policemen.
We know that the projection light is a symbol because it refers itself as a symbol of exposure and human control; commanding attention to whatever it shines upon and fixating on his ’10 minutes of fame’ and later, breakdown.
The bingo wheel is another symbol of the story representing the other form of control: divine fate. “He felt vaguely that his whole life was determined by the bingo wheel, not only that which would happen now […] but all that had gone before” (Ellison 480).
The wheel is clearly a symbol because it is more than just an object; it has the power to change lives, and here the nameless protagonist believes that it holds the destiny of his family, if only it could be controlled. But how do you control fate?
The third symbol, the wheel’s button, represents the nameless protagonist’s chance at changing fate. According to Ellison, he has practiced how the players hold the button, how long they press it and he knows just what to do to win (480). When his chance arrives, however, he can’t let go, as we see here:
There was still that feeling of helplessness […] Then, like the sudden shriek of a subway whistle, a doubt tore through his head. Suppose he did not spin the wheel long enough? What could he do, and how could he tell? And then he knew, even as he wondered, that as long as he pressed the button, he could control the jackpot. He and only he could determine whether or not it was to be his. (481)
The nameless protagonist comes to the realization that he is playing for more than just the “jackpot of $36.90” (Ellison 480), as long as he wields the button, he, rather than the projection light, has control of the audience’s attention.
He has control of his own destiny.
It is this realization that signifies the importance of the button as a symbol within the story. It is this control that makes him, however brief, the “King of the Bingo Game”.
Source Reading: Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction, 11th ed. Ed. James Pickering. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 478-484.