University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Jim Garrett
The White Strings Puppeting the American Dream: "King of the Bingo Game" and "Battle Royal"
The White Strings Puppeting the American Dream: "King of the Bingo Game" and "Battle Royal"
In his short stories, "King of the Bingo Game" and "Battle Royal," Ralph Ellison tells two first-person narratives of African-American men in the twentieth century. In both these stories, the protagonists face unfairness through games of chance that will weigh heavily on their respective futures. In "King of the Bingo Game," an unnamed African-American man sits in a dreary theater playing a game of bingo to pay for his wife's medical expenses. After chancing upon a bingo, the man goes on stage to spin a wheel for the jackpot, but freezes in the light of the crowd, refusing to stop pressing the button that allows the jackpot wheel to stop. After he finally releases the button, the wheel comes to a stop, over his desired jackpot, but he is knocked out cold from behind, leaving the reader questioning his future. Similarly, in "Battle Royal," another young unnamed African-American man, bright and top of his class, is haunted by his grandfather's dying words, calling for him to go against the expectations of white society. Nonetheless, the protagonist is invited to a town smoker, at which he is asked to give his commencement speech to a crowd of the town's wealthiest white men. Caught in the mix of white generalization, the protagonist is forced into competing in a so-called battle royal among other young African-American men. Throughout the event, the protagonist sees racism at its very worst, being humiliated time and time again by his hosts. In the end, after repeated humiliation, he is granted a college scholarship, but he questions its purpose. The protagonist leaves the reader with the question of if he should go along with his subservient place in white society, or speak out for something greater like his grandfather always wanted. In these stories, Ellison attempts to relate the African-American experience in twentieth-century America through the unfiltered and sometimes unreliable limited perspective of the stories' narrators. Using this tool, he creates symbolism through games of chance to express the unfairness of American society for the African-American man.
Through both stories, Ellison conveys the unfairness of the African-American experience through the games that each protagonist respectively plays. At the start of "King of the Bingo Game," the protagonist tries to slightly turn the odds in his favor by using five bingo cards in the Bingo Game. Ellison writes, "The guy at the door wouldn't like it if he knew about his having five cards. Well, not everyone played the bingo game; and even with five cards he didn't have much of a chance. For Laura, though, he had to have faith" ("Bingo Game," 2). This added thought by the protagonist shows the reader what is on the line in this seemingly simple bingo game. The protagonist's secret advantage acknowledges the fact that he knows all the odds are against him. Similarly, in "Battle Royal," the protagonist tries to take a similar advantage as he is blindfolded as they prepare for the battle royal. Ellison writes, "I felt the cloth pressed into place, and frowned so that it would be loosened when I relaxed" ("Battle Royal," 6). Although not dealing with a matter of life and death of a loved one, like the protagonist of "King of the Bingo Game," this protagonist knows that this game will make a significant impact on his place in his town's community. The protagonists' attempt at an advantage over the games shows that even they know the games are not in their favor, therefore they must take any advantage possible.
However, as these games progress Ellison continues to show how despite attempted advantage, the rules of the games are not in the control of the protagonists. In "Battle Royal," the protagonist is directed to a carpet placed on the floor of the ring, covered with coins and paper money, and told whatever each competitor is able to grab will be their winnings for completing the battle royal. However, upon acting upon these instructions, the protagonist narrates, "I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design of the carpet, touching it and sending a surprised shriek to join those rising around me… The rug was electrified" ("Battle Royal," 11). What had seemed fair at first turned out to be a complete humiliation of the protagonist and his fellow peers. This was a stunt intended to be humiliating, for the entertainment of the wealthy white spectators. As the protagonist of "King of the Bingo Game" thinks he will be presented with his jackpot for the bingo wheel spinning in his favor after much debacle, he is knocked unconscious and presumably dragged offstage. Ellison writes, "But as he warmed in the justice of the man's tight smile he did not see the man's slow wink… He only felt the dull pain exploding in his skull, and he knew even as it slipped out of him that his luck had run out on the stage" ("Bingo Game," 7). Both characters, when they seemingly reached a point of fulfillment and victory for their respective causes, had it carelessly stripped away, whether it be in the form of entertainment for the audience or the game's hosts pulling strings to ensure the odds are in the hosts' favor. Overall, this shows that despite the attempts at increasing their chances, the protagonists face little chance in a game that is deliberately rigged against them. With this, Ellison is symbolizing how African-Americans are at play in American society. On paper they may be playing according to the rules of American life, working towards the American Dream, but in truth, the white-controlled society is able to pull strings from behind the scenes to ensure their failure to fulfill this goal.
Ellison uses the limited perspective to create a vivid, unfiltered, account of how the transpiring events reveal the characters' relationship with American society. Sometimes seen as unreliable, the limited perspective provides a restricted viewpoint that breaches solely from the eyes of the protagonist. A major use of this perspective is to highlight the humiliating racism that is prominent throughout both stories. In "King of the Bingo Game," as the protagonist nervously walks up to the stage, the game's host makes him feel even more uncomfortable mocking his diction. Ellison writes; I better get down from here before I make a fool of myself, he thought. "Here, boy," the man called. "You haven't started yet." Someone laughed as he went hesitantly back. "Are you all reet?" He grinned at the man's jive talk, but no words would come, and he knew it was not a convincing grin. For suddenly he knew that he stoop on the slippery brink of some terrible embarrassment (3). In this excerpt, Ellison highlights the embarrassment evident in the protagonist's narration of the events as they transpire. It allows a connection between the reader and the character that may not be as strong with a third-person narrator. This inner feeling of embarrassment is continued in "Battle Royal," as the protagonist feels helpless in the battle royal, his eyes covered with a blindfold. In the narrator's words, "Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man" ("Battle Royal," 7). Far from any light of hope and blinded by the cloth of a blindfold, the protagonist is quite literally blinded by white power, unable to fight back against the imminent threats and obloquy around him. Throughout each story, Ellison paints a lucid account of degradation and confusing ignominy. The limited perspective magnifies these themes, making the reader feel the unexpurgated inner emotions of the protagonists in response to the events that transpire.
As the reader looks more and more into the experiences of the protagonists, one might realize how little is revealed about each character individually. An important detail is how neither protagonist is ever named at all. Both are referred to as "boy" or "nr" but never by an actual name. In "King of the Bingo Game," this topic is eventually highlighted by Ellison, as when the protagonist stands frozen on the stage, he begins to think about his role in American society. Ellison remarks, "He realized that somehow he had forgotten his own name… That name had been given him by the white man who had owned his grandfather a long lost time ago down South. But Maybe those wise guys knew his name" ("Bingo Game," 5). This excerpt specifically draws attention to the reader's lack of knowledge of the protagonist's past, not even knowing his name. Further, no other character present in the Bingo theater knows his name or his important plans for the bingo jackpot, showing his invisibility to the rest of this society. For a similar lack of distinction, the protagonist of "Battle Royal" shows up at the smoker to give his commencement speech, but is profiled by the organizers, assuming him to also be one of the boxers for the battle royal because of his African-American skin. The narrator comments, "I was told that since I was to be there anyway I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment" ("Battle Royal," 3). Although seemingly harmless to the narrator at first, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that this generalization causes physical harm to the protagonist. Moreover, the white audience thinks nothing of it, assuming that because he is another African-American "boy" or "nr," he is also a fighter. This parallels the harm that can come from generalizations in American society. As the events of the fateful night come to a close, the protagonist is offered a college scholarship in a beautiful calfskin briefcase. However, the superintendent presenting the scholarship says, in reference to the still-unnamed protagonist, "'He makes a good speech and some day he'll lead his people in the proper paths. And I don't have to tell you that that is important in these days and times'" ("Battle Royal," 15). In saying this, Ellison illustrates that the white people bestowing this gift upon him do not want him to forge a future fighting for equality or justice in white society, they do not even bother to mention him by name. Instead, they want this brilliant young man to help other African-Americans conform to this white society that denigrates them. This is not a gift of generosity, but one of greedy manipulation. Both protagonists' personal goals are invisible to the white people around them, instead of forging a new identity for themselves, the white people in the stories want them to lead "their people" down the "proper paths" to continue a subservient American society.
Ellison's nameless protagonists do not represent an individual experience of a single person, but the greater experience of the African-American people in twentieth-century America. A simple game of bingo or a battle royal is not the only time the African-American people face this experience; they face it every day. To the white man, they are invisible, just another African-American "boy" in a white man's world. Ellison preaches that one must not conform to this society that he himself has lived through, because that society does not treat the African-American man with fairness. Ellison writes how the rules of each game seem to set competitors on a level playing field at first, but are easily manipulated and maneuvered by the people running the show. This is also true in American society. African-Americans are granted equal protection under United States law, but are still separated and treated differently than their white brothers and sisters. Ellison's stories do not represent one, but the many African-Americans living throughout America. His message is one of change, relating a mass society of legalized racial corruption through two simple games.
The Sinful Christian and the Good Savage
The Sinful Christian and the Good Savage
In his novel, Moby Dick, Herman Melville uses his protagonist Ishmael to interact with a wide variety of characters with different religious backgrounds. However, the two that stand out as distinct in the early parts of the novel are Father Mapple, a Christian New Bedford preacher delivering a sermon to a number of whalemen, and Queequeg, the pagan "savage" who Ishmael befriends after sharing a bed with at the overcrowded Spouter Inn. While Father Mapple warns against the ill fate ahead of heathens and pagans since they do not follow the Christian God, Queequeg presents a very different character from traditionalist Christians like Father Mapple. The kindness and openness of Queequeg cause Ishamel to question his faith and be more open in his religious thought.
Ishmael encounters Father Mapple early in his journey as he attends Father Mapple's sermon at a chapel in New Bedford. As he gives his sermon from his boat-shaped pulpit, he bears a resemblance to a captain giving orders to his crew. Melville writes, "Nor was the pulpit itself without a trace of the same sea-taste that had achieved the ladder and the picture. Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ship's bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship's fiddle-headed beak" (Melville, 44). This scene sets the tone for the sermon as Father Mapple will be ordering his audience on how to reach salvation the same way a ship captain would give his orders from the quarterdeck. Father Mapple's sermon goes on about the story of Jonah, but it stands out to readers at its end, as he tells his audience of the singular path to salvation— through God and God only. Melville writes, "'Delight, —top gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven'" (Melville, 50). Father Mapple tells the sailors that they must conform to a singular mindset, acknowledging no other god than the Christian God. One who does not even worship, but acknowledges the existence of other gods will not achieve the delight he speaks of. Father Mapple continues, saying, "'And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath—O Father! — chiefly known to me by Thy rod — mortal or immortal, here I die'" (Melville, 50). Father Mapple is stating that the only path to eternal salvation is through the singular mindset of Christian worship. Father Mapple is telling his listeners what they have to do and what they have to be in their lives. While Ishmael was raised Christian under a similar set of orders, his obedience to this mindset would change.
While Christian preachers like Father Mapple warn Ishmael away from pagans like Queequeg, Ishmael cannot resist but immerse himself to learn more about Queequeg's unique culture and religion. Queequeg surprises Ishmael because his behavior is far from being sinful or savage. Melville writes, "Thinks, I Queequeg, under the circumstances, this is a very civilized overture; but, the truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy, say what you will; it is marvelous how essentially polite they are. I pay this particular compliment to Queequeg, because he treated me with so much civility and consideration while I was guilty of great rudeness" (Melville, 35). While Ishmael expects Queequeg to be a heathen cannibal he is taken aback by Queequeg's civility and friendship. Ishmael describes his interest in Queequeg's paganism through this unprompted kindness, something he has not seen in many people he has encountered along his journey. Ishmael narrates, "Those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy" (Melville, 52). While many others are deterred by Queequeg's large size and cannibalistic roots, Ishmael sees through him and rather focuses on Queequeg's loving nature. He has not met many Christians that have been equally outgoing, despite them supposedly being the chosen people of the Christian God. Ishmael uses the fundamental behavior towards others that most Christians are supposed to follow as his logic for embracing Queequeg, rather than distancing himself as suggested by Father Mapple. Ishmael narrates, I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth —pagans and all included— can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God— that is worship. And what is the will of God? —to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me— that is the will of God (52-53). At this point, Ishmael has genuinely begun to question the Christian culture in which he was raised. The golden rule, treat others as one wishes to be treated, as Ishmael has learned in Church has made him question the singularity of Christianity. Ishmael describes Queequeg with many qualities that he aspires to attain in becoming a better person. Melville writes, "[Queequeg was] content with his own companionship; always equal to himself. Surely this was a touch of fine philosophy" (Melville, 51). Ishmael asks himself, if Queequeg is an embodiment of an ideal friend and someone who is content with his future, then why is he the one who should not shine brightest in the eyes of a higher God? Through his personal self-reliance, Queequeg shows Ishmael that Christianity may not be the best path toward finding eternal salvation or inner enlightenment.
Through Queequeg, Ishmael learns that he can strive to be a better person by not conforming himself to a specific religious path. The values of kindness, affection, and reasonability stand above any set of religious principles. When recounting his life story, Queequeg, through the rewording of Ishmael, talks about how he once wanted to become Christian to escape the cannibalistic culture he was raised in. Ishmael narrates, "Queequeg's ambitious soul, lurked a strong desire to see something more of Christendom than a specimen whaler or two… But, alas! The practices of whalemen soon convinced [Queequeg] that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than other his father's heathens" (Melville, 54-55). In a very controversial excerpt, Melville illustrates that while Queequeg sought out Christianity as a path toward becoming a better person, he soon discovered that many Christians were far eviler than any cannibal. What Ishmael learns and what Melville seeks to show his reader is that the religious path one takes is not what defines them as a person. While religion may guide one or another towards being a kind or just person, it cannot be limited to following orders from a preacher on a pulpit or a captain on the quarterdeck. To have a greater sense of self-purpose one must dedicate themselves to the others around them, not the God they pray to. Whether pagan cannibal or whale-slaughtering Christian, it is the intimate personal interactions one makes that separate the good people from the true savages.