Ralph Ellison’s Battle Royal provides a realistic perspective of a Negro man striving to live in a nation dominated by white supremacy. The story speaks of the conflicts between the white and blacks as well as the conflicts that arise within the narrator and himself. Battle Royal resembles a black man’s place in society, the American Dream, and the use of symbolism to convey this thought.
Ellison uses symbols and imagery to engage the readers by bringing them to a time period in history where social equality frowned upon. Society in the 1900s was very different in terms of the social status among the American people. In the 1900s, blacks were strongly discriminated against the whites. Discrimination was not against the law as blacks were deemed free but must be segregated against the whites. The idea of a white dominate society was still in existent. Ellison was born (in the year 1914) into this era of racial discrimination and segregation. The story begins with the narrator reminiscing about the past when his grandfather was on his deathbed.
The grandfather delivers a speech to the narrator that proves to haunt the narrator for the rest of his life. The grandfather said, “Son, after I’m gone, I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Ellison 258).
The narrator was extremely puzzled with the words from his grandfather; he had thought that his grandfather had gone insane. The flashback the narrator has reminds himself of his roots, his grandfather had taunted him with his dying speech for the rest of the narrator’s life. The narrator had been living as a rebel and a traitor without even realizing it. He was praised by many white men and was considered an example of desirable conduct. “I was praised by then most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct. – just as my grandfather had been” (Ellison 259). Ellison and his grandfather were considered traitors because they were outstanding blacks in a society of white dominants.
The mere fact of a black succeeding is considered treachery and rebellious in the 1900s where white dominated. The narrator believes that he is successful in this white dominated society, but in actuality, the whites are only using him for entertainment. “When I got there I discovered that it was on the occasion of a smoker, and I was told that since I was to be there anyways I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment”(Ellison 259). This quote from the novel describes exactly how the blacks were treated.
All of the blacks were expected to entertain the whites in the Battle Royal. The black were symbolic and was represented as objects used to entertain the whites. Ellison uses many symbols in Battle Royal to demonstrate the lack of black equality. The battle itself is a symbol the narrator’s never ending battle for social equality. The battle also represents the lack of freedom the narrator had, he was forced into a fight without any say. “We were rushed up to the front of the ballroom, where it smelled even more strongly of tobacco and whiskey. Then we were pushed into place” (Ellison 260). The stripper represents the amount of control the white men had over the blacks. Recall that in the 1900s, blacks were heavily discriminated; many blacks would have been persecuted for sight of a white woman.
The narrator felt guilt and fear and was not sure how to react. “I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself” (Ellison 261). The naked woman also symbolizes the confusion of the narrator, he is not sure how to react and this symbolizes his uncertainty in his role of society. The white blindfold represents how blacks were being brainwashed by the whites into the mindset of a white dominated society.
The naked woman also symbolizes the lack of respect shown to women at this time of white male dominance. The American flag tattoo on the naked woman symbolized how a stripper had more social status than a black man. The tattoo also symbolizes the American Dream and the American paradigm. The American Dream defines the American culture and is used to describe the social status of a man in the American society. Ellison uses symbols from Battle Royal to describe the American Dream. The American flag tattoo on the naked woman shows represents the American Dream that can be achieved by anyone.
However, the narrator is very close achieving the American Dream only to have it taken away from him. “I saw the rug covered with coins of all dimensions and a few crumpled bills. But what excited me, scattered here and there, were the gold pieces” (Ellison 266). The narrator had been given a chance at the American Dream only to be fooled when discovered the fake coins and electrocuted. “I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design carpet, touching it and sending a surprised shriek to join those rising around me. I tried frantically to remove my hand but could not let go. A hot violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat. The rug was electrified” (Ellison 266-26).
The narrator had been shocked not just physically but mentally. He was uncertain of this shock as it had hurt him. The promise of the American Dream was only a set of lies. The narrator had only been used to entertain the whites. “The huge face wavered down to mine as he tried to push me free. But my body was slippery and he was too drunk. …It was as though I had rolled through a bed of hot coals” (Ellison 267-268). The narrator is being thrown onto the rug to be electrocuted, just to satisfy the entertainment of the whites. There was no American Dream for the blacks, only a fixed chance that would always favor the whites as the blacks were used for entertainment when shocked on the rug. Ellison’s Battle Royal depicts the struggles of many blacks during the era of racial discrimination and segregation.
The narrator described in the story directly correlates to the life Ellison lived. He was one who was “others” and was blindfolded his entire life, following orders from whites and having the whites take advantage of him. The naked woman symbolized the amount of control whites had in society and how many women were disrespected whether white or black. Ellison also discusses the American Dream through the use of symbols including the electrified rugs and coins. The blacks would only be close to achieving the American Dream but never able to have the American Dream.