Ralph Ellison | Critical Essay by David J. Herman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Ralph Ellison.
This section contains 978 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by David J. Herman

Critical Essay by David J. Herman

SOURCE: "Ellison's 'King of the Bingo Game': Finding Naturalism's Trapdoor," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1991, pp. 71-74.

In the following essay, Herman explains how Ellison both follows and deviates from the conventions of literary naturalism in "King of the Bingo Game."

Prima facie, Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game" fits squarely into the tradition of literary naturalism. Ellison's extended treatment of the bingo wheel, for one thing, figures the same overriding concern with the issue of fate versus chance—the issue of determinism—manifest in, say, the famous open-safe scene in Dreiser's Sister Carrie, or in the closing pages of Norris's The Octopus. If anything, Ellison's story addresses the notion of determinism even more explicitly than is customary in naturalistic works. For Ellison's (literally) nameless protagonist attempts self-consciously to eliminate chance, to control the wheel of fortune itself, by refusing to relinquish his grasp on the button whose release determines where the bingo wheel will stop. Ellison, in orthodox naturalistic fashion, also stresses the protagonist's gnawing hunger and his craving for the alcohol he hears gurgling appealingly in the bottle of his fellow movie-goers. Indeed, in accordance with the logic of the naturalistic genre, we witness the bingo-player's last-ditch effort to beat not only the odds, but also the resistance of a hostile or at the very least indifferent environment. Against such an environment the protagonist, having been displaced from the rural South into the urban North, must struggle, much as he struggles against the now bored and impatient, now aggressive and jeering movie audience. Rhetorically speaking, furthermore, Ellison, like Flaubert and, later, Joyce and Faulkner, mimics the disjointed thought-processes of his protagonist, a hungry, tired, desperate man, his mind roving, in the space of a single paragraph, from attempts to concentrate on the movie; to thoughts about his dying wife; to reflection on the mechanism of movie-projection itself; to a hypothetical revision and eroticization of the movie's script; to the fleeting and repugnant memory of a bedbug crawling on an unknown woman's neck.

Yet certain elements taken from this same compendium of thought-associations point to an emphasis in Ellison's story that competes with, and to some extent undermines, the deterministic, social-Darwinistic manner in which the author portrays the protagonist's fight to survive. What I wish to isolate in this context is the protagonist's preoccupation with the modes of projection, as well as the (possible) revision, of the film being shown as the story begins. For instance, the bingo-player finds himself drawn to "the white beam filtered from the projection room above the balcony," and amazed that "the beam always landed right on the screen and didn't mess up or fall somewhere else." Here, the protagonist's momentary fascination in effect undercuts the overt naturalism of Ellison's entire account. For the bingoplayer's thoughts gesture toward the contingency, the capacity to "mess up" or "fall somewhere else," in the face of which we project cultural stories—narratives in general and Ellison's own tale in particular. The limits of Ellison's deterministic fiction are thereby exposed from within; a narrative that explains accident by fate at the same time designates as accidental the success, the cogency and coherence, with which any given narrative explains a personal, projects a collective destiny.

Consider how the notion of projection, along with those of staging and theatricalization, in fact operate throughout "King of the Bingo Game," assimilating what Ellison represents as fated or determined to what the author portrays as made, constructed, "art." This assimilation of nature to art tends not only to suggest how every putatively naturalistic account remains the product of certain (literary) conventions, but tends also to break down the difference between levels or orders of representation within Ellison's narrative itself. For example, in the opening paragraph we watch, through the protagonist's eyes, the movie's "hero stealthily entering a dark room and sending the beam of a flashlight along a wall of bookcases" and then finding a trapdoor. Likewise, Ellison's bingo-player, Ellison's "hero," at first sees by means of the projector flashing images on the screen, and at last finds himself in dire need of a trapdoor of sorts at the story's end. The girl that the movie's hero finds tied to a bed, moreover, brings to mind the bingo-player's own sick and presumably bed-ridden wife. The analogy Ellison thus creates between the (in principle) alterable narrative sequence of the film, and the (in principle) unalterable or deterministic account of the protagonist's battle against fate, suggests how Ellison's own naturalistic presentation counts as only one among other possible ways of constructing the bingo-player's experiences. Ellison's staging or theatricalization of the protagonist's desperate bid to win—after all, he makes that bid before footlights and in front of an audience—further approximates ostensibly fated or determined actions to the process by which narratives are in the first place fabricated, made up. Once fate is staged, destiny theatricalized, nature itself becomes a cultural production.

In short, Ellison's treatment of the bingo wheel on the one hand implies freedom only within a limited, predetermined set of possibilities; the bingo-player finally runs around in circles in attempts to elude the police. But on the other hand, Ellison simultaneously places the closed circle of destiny within a narrative frame that, by breaking down the barrier between convention and nature, representation and what is represented, makes of fate itself an open-ended process, no more and no less "fixed" than the accounts through which we project our experiences onto the stage of culture at large. Ellison's story, by inviting speculation on the contingency of any narrative that feigns to be fixed, thereby parodies the naturalistic tradition in which "King of the Bingo Game" is also heavily invested. It is in the resulting dissonance of conceptual schemes that we find the only space of freedom—the sole trapdoor into alternative cultural logic—on which the bingo-player might have staked a well-calculated risk.

(read more)

This section contains 978 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by David J. Herman
Follow Us on Facebook