‘Battle Royal’ is a powerful and evocative story that Ellison later made the opening chapter of his novel, Invisible Man (1952) ‘Battle Royal’ was originally written in 1947 and is, therefore, set in 1927 in an unnamed state in the American South.. It is an engaging text, not only because of its content and subject matter, but also because of Ellison’s writing – especially his manipulation of point of view and his meshing of past and present. Hos perspective as narrator looking back twenty year allows him to criticize the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Sooth’s segregationalist policies – which had not changed when the story and then the novel were published.
Ellison loses little figurative language, but when he does it usually is used to de-value the humans in the story, so ther are several similes comparing men to animals or to worthless inanimate objects: one of the whit men present at the Battle Royal is an “intoxicated panda” 24); the narrator feels as if he is in a room “filled with poisonous cottonmouths” (25); the boys involved in the fight are “blind, cautious crabs” (25); their fist grope around in the darkness “like the knobbed feelers of hypersensitive snails” (22); the men watching the final two are “howling” like animals in their violent excitement (25). The effect of this use of figurative language is to dehumanize all the characters, black and white, and present them as animals. This is certainly appropriate to the Battle Royal which caters for the most basic impulses human beings can have: lust (the naked white woman); greed (the frantic scrambling for cash by the African Americans); and violence (the battle itself). Another pattern if imagery is drawn from the world of warfare and international confrontation: in a way it is the basis of the story given the title ‘Battle Royal,’ but it is also apparent in the narrator’s thoughts about his grandfather’s death bed words: “traitor, “spy” and “treachery” (17) suggest the world of international espionage. As the story progresses we start to have a sense that the narrator’s younger self mis-interpreted hos grandfather’s words. He thinks he is betraying the dominant white culture which is responsible in the South for segregation and for the appallingly violent treatment of the African Americans in the Battle Royal, but by the end of the story the reader can see that his grandfather meant that to co-operate with racist white people was an act of betrayal of his own people. The narrator’s younger self is hard-working and complies with the segregationist society he lives in – he plays by the rules of white southern society and is, therefore, a “traitor” to his own race.
The story is a first person narrative by an African American. However, he is looking back on his younger self with the hindsight of twenty years’ experience, and, therefore, there is an element of irony in what he describes, because his older self and the readers see some the events that are described differently from the narrator’s younger self. He admits in the first paragraph, “I was naive” (17), which suggests his views have changed radically, and he introduces a concept that readers will not immediately understand. He says that to lose his naive way of looking things, he “had to discover that I am an invisible man.” (17) The first paragraph is important too si establishing that the narrator is intelligent and articulate with an educated vocabulary: “contradiction”, self-contradictory,” “expectations,” “realization.” (17) Because the narrator is looking back twenty years, there is an ironic distance between him and his younger self, which allows us to interpret the story more profoundly than if it had been written in the third person. The vents described would still have been seen as racist and abusive and shocking, but the older, first person narrator is used to set up a clear moral viewpoint which implicitly criticises what goes on in this segregationalist’s society.
In one sense, the real theme of this story is the narrator’s slow growth and realization of the real meaning of his grandfather’s words. However, on the surface, the real theme is the inhumanity and hypocrisy of the south’s segregationalist policies and the virulent racism that existed beneath the surface of southern society. At the Battle Royal the narrator is surprised to see some of the town’s most distinguished white citizens – businessmen, merchants, lawyers, teachers and even a pastor! They all condone and encourage the black-on-black violence that occurs in ten boxing ring and either react with amusement or hysterically violent encouragement. Ellison does not convey this through directs statements or the characters thoughts: the narrator, we already know is naive, and goes along with the humiliation given to him. Ellison does not tell us; he shows us and the fact that this is being narrated by an educated, older narrator aids our understanding of how to interpret the story. Perhaps the most painful and ironic part of the story is the fact that the narrator is allowed to make his graduation day speech again. However, the second time he delivers this speech the context is completely different and he is being condescended to by the powerful white elite of his town. He has just taken part in the violent and humiliating blindfolded boxing game and the scramble for money from the electrified rug, but, patronizingly, because he is clever they allow him to make his speech, although it is clear that some of the audience are not listening. He body is battered from the fight and the blood from his cuts is almost choking him. Because of this some the phrases from his speech takes on a profound irony: “Social responsibility” and “social equality” – two phrases that surely are hollow in the society he lives in and which are openly mocked by his audience. The older narrator does interject at one point to make clear the naive attitude of his younger self: “(What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!)” (26). The final patronizing and hypocritical humiliation is the presentation of the briefcase containing a “scholarship to the state college for Negroes.” (27). Rather than being angered at the system of segregation which keeps him in his place, the narrator’s younger self is “overjoyed.” (27)
This story is a well-written indictment of the institutionalized racism that existed in the South in the first half of the twentieth century.
Ellison, Ralph. ‘Battle Royal’ (1947’. Pages 17 – 32 in Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. (1952). London: Penguin.
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