Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royale”, is a thought provoking short story that puts a creative twist on the perspectives of racial inequality victims through a clever use of symbolism, setting it apart from any other story of its subject. What’s particularly unique about this story is it can easily be interpreted in a literal sense, in which case the story reads as a compelling experience of a man who struggles to find his identity in a world corrupt with prejudice.
However, readers should recognize that this story is fictional so they can begin to identify the symbolism throughout the text that makes this story extraordinary. Although it can easily be assumed that this story focuses primarily on the suffering of an African American minority, but there are a number of obscure, significant details that allow this story to reflect on the existence of racial inequality in America. Additionally, the insight provided regarding the main character’s dreams and inner dialogue provides a unique perspective as a victim of prejudice.
Our first indications of the protagonist’s characteristics are given in the opening two paragraphs with a monologue reflecting on some of his “revelations”. It is evident from this introduction that the main character thinks poorly of himself as he describes himself as a self-contradiction, and ashamed. This opening inner dialogue serves as foreshadowing, indicating that such low self-esteem was provoked by a shameful experience. Immediately after, the story begins with a reflection on the final words of the main character’s “odd” and disliked grandfather.
Vague and ominous as these words are, they are vital to the story’s theme and become very clear at the conclusion. To summarize, his grandfather refers to himself as a traitor and urges his son to continue the “good fight”, then asks that the children are taught to do the same. Forever impacted by those words, the main character is left puzzled and haunted by his grandfather’s words, which somehow manage to downsize the triumphs of the protagonist.
These words are reflected on as the main character approaches another major triumph for not only himself but his community, as he is to give a speech for an important group of men. What’s interesting is that the main character explains that he does not believe in the actual content of the speech only that it “worked”, suggesting that he is more concerned with pleasing the crowd than being genuine. As the main character arrives at the hotel where he is to give his speech, he is unsuspectingly dragged into participating in a brawl known as the battle royal.
During the time that he begins to realize what he is about to take part in, the main character is only concerned with how the brawl will affect the dignity of his speech. As he describes his feeling of superiority over the other competitors, the readers are given the indication that the main character is somewhat arrogant, and it is again reinforced that he is also very concerned with his social status. In the midst of the main character grasping understanding in his chaotic situation, a naked woman is presented and made to perform a dance for the men in the room, throwing him further into confusion.
As one of the most profound symbols of the story, this woman represents the American dream, serving as a catalyst for the readers to gain insight based on the reactions towards her. The immediate reaction to her appearance is complete silence among the entire room as the men stare in awe at her beauty. From the main character, we receive a variety of contrasting feelings including love and murder, and caress and destroy. Such contrast is meant to reflect the main character’s strong desire to be part of the American dream, but also a hatred and frustration for the fact that he can never achieve such a standard.
All the while, the white men in the room force the competitors to watch the performance, taunting with an ideal that they will never experience. The dancer is eventually grabbed at and abused by the white men of the room, symbolizing how a prejudice mindset grants forceful control to the majority, particularly the wealthy and powerful, over the American ideals. This forceful manipulation over what is “right or wrong” is an underlying theme of this story and helps in better understanding of the opening quote from the grandfather.
Soon after the dancer is forced out of the room, the boxers, including the main character, are made to fight each other blindfolded in a chaotic frenzy. After an extended period of this random brawling, the blindfolds are finally removed for a boxing match between the main character and other remaining opponent. The main character quickly realizes that he is outmatched by his opponent and attempts to offer money in exchange for victory. Not only does the challenger refuse, but he makes the claim that he is fighting for himself rather than for the audience.
What’s particularly significant about this situation is the fact the despite being forced into a savage brawl at the expense of the white men, the main character continues to participate whole heartedly with the intention of gaining their approval. Of course, the main character was terrified and threatened into participating, but even during the blindfolded beating he continues to think of how well he will perform his speech, as though brainwashed into believing he should endure such a beating.
After enduring a vicious and dehumanizing activities for the entertainment of the audience, the main character is finally made to give his speech in his bloodied and beaten condition. His audience is hardly attentive and is continuously insulting him with sarcastic remarks. In the midst of his speech as he is made to repeat things, he unintentionally says “social equality”, which causes a sudden silence followed by loud hostility. As readers we are able to sympathize with the fact that he was faced with such a threatening situation and so did not admit to actually having said that.
At the conclusion of the speech, the main character receives a suitcase and a scholarship to a “negro” college. For what the character endured to receive these things we understand as readers that it was hardly worth it, but the main character is overjoyed by his “achievement”. It isn’t until his dream about his grandfather that he realizes that he has brought himself to a shameful level. By working so diligently in hopes of being appreciated by the white community, the main character has allowed himself to be a puppet, participating in physically punishing activities at their expense and entertainment.
It is made apparent that the main character only desires social equality, and so did his grandfather. However, his grandfather was trying to tell him that he should strive to fight for equality rather than try to earn it from the majority. It is for this reason that the main character hadn’t been able to enjoy any achievements, because he had forfeited his own dignity in pursuit of the majority’s approval. This is a compelling story filled with profound symbolism which sets it apart from any other story about the struggles of social inequality.