Ralph Ellison

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The Path of the White Men Versus The Path of the Grandfather

The narrator in "Battle Royal," by Ralph Ellison, is confused and disillusioned. He is black man trapped in a world of cruelty and social inequality with nobody to guide him. He is being ripped apart in two directions by the advice of his grandfather and by the wishes of the white society which he longs to please. While attempting to satisfy their wishes, he forgets what is most important- his own dignity.

The narrator's problem is rooted with his parents. They refuse to discuss his grandfather's advice with him, and as a result he never knows exactly what it means. One could see how it would be confusing to a young boy:

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 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open (Ellison 430).

His grandfather followed this advice by saying, "Learn it to the younguns," (Ellison 430) and then he died. The advice was meant for the young children, and yet they were never taught its meaning. The narrator was left to ponder its meaning, and his confusion left his mind in constant guilt and disillusionment.

His grandfather had always been a model citizen. He was a quiet, meek man who always acted in a desirable way towards the whites. And then, on his deathbed, he called himself a traitor and a spy. What haunted the narrator is that he acted in the same manner as his grandfather did, and had always received compliments and praise from the whites in his society. And on the other hand, his grandfather referred to those acts as being treacherous. This brought about a feeling of guilt in the narrator. How could he maintain the respect of the whites without being dubbed a traitor?

It took him a while, but eventually he learned the meaning of his grandfather's advice. He was doing the acts that his grandfather meant, when he referred to "the good fight." However, there was one major difference issue that he didn't understand. In trying to impress the high-standing white members of his community, he allowed them to take advantage of his ambition. He wanted to impress them because he felt that they were the ones who mattered, and only their respect and admiration counted. This was the difference. His grandfather's advice was meant to have the "younguns" put on a mask when with the whites. Their opinion did matter, because it was them who controlled society and them who determined the quality of life in the black community. But the agreeing and sucking up that was done had to be artificial. His inner-self must be preserved, otherwise he would be nothing more than a slave to the whites. The "good fight" is the battle to maintain his own dignity, and also earn the praise of the whites. This is the only way to maintain one's self-respect and survive (or maybe even advance) in a white-dominated society.

"Battle Royal" gives the reader a frightening look at just how society looks at blacks. In the story, the narrator and another group of young, black boys are humiliated and degraded simply for the entertainment of some older white men. The narrator goes to the gathering with the intention of delivering a speech which he earned acclaim for from the white superintendent. He was incredibly excited, and was hoping to impress the other whites in the community. He is driven by the desire to please the whites, and therefore advance his own standing among them. He measures his accomplishments by what the white men think of him. He says it was a "triumph for his whole community" (Ellison 431) when he was asked to deliver that speech again, and couldn't be more proud. Of course, things...
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