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Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison

By hater640 Sep 21, 2011 1073 Words
Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison (1952)

Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal” (Ellison 278-288) is about a young African American protagonist who is so well spoken that he is invited to a prestigious hotel ballroom to present the speech he had given the night before, at his high school graduation to an all white men’s club. Instead, he asked to participate in a “Battle” against the other 9 men who were paid to come there for the evening’s entertainment. The short story is effective because it really helps the reader to understand the struggle African American men were going through for equality and identity in society throughout history. Instead of writing a story with facts about discrimination and statistics on them, he chose to write this story in which he used imagery and satire to enable the reader to have an insight on the heinous experiences of these young men. In the end, he still gives his speech after being humiliated, degraded, and beaten; and is awarded for his compliance as well as his speech. Only to be told the award was “so he could lead his people on the proper path” (Ellison 288 par. 5), but whose idea of the “proper path” was he to follow? I feel the story is really about power and control of one group of people over another by keeping them fighting amongst themselves.

The imagery of the woman is effective because she in naked in front of all of the men and, yet she isn’t ashamed stripped of all of her dignity to make a few bucks ;and yet the white men have more respect for her then the young African American boxers. The white men are using her to show the fighters that no matter how powerful they may feel; they are the least powerful there because she has control of their urges despite themselves. He then uses imagery to describe how she looked more like a prostitute then a woman with dignity. “The hair yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged,” (Ellison 280 par. 2). When I think of a kewpie doll, I think of thick nasty brittle, bleached hair. Not really a desirable way to look had she been dressed. She seems to also represent everything American, stereotypically, with her tattooed flag of the United States, her blonde hair and blue eyes. What else could be more American? However just like everyone else at this event the smile on her lips is a contradictory tale of the look in her eyes. The narrator at the end breaks down and uses surrealism and personification in his statement “She seemed like fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea. I was transported.”(Ellison 281 par.1).

Next let’s go to the main event of the evening, this boxing match that was just as much for entertainment as it was to make a racist attempt to prove to the narrator what these “powerful white men” could do if he didn’t do as they told him. “There was nothing to do but what we were told.” (Ellison 281par.3). This imagery of the white blindfold is an allegory and it is effective because it strips them of their identities, or their place in society. Each man is now for himself, or so it seems. “It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else. No group fought together for long.”(Ellison 283 par.1). Little to the narrators knowledge all of the other men have made an agreement amongst themselves as to who would be left to duke it out in the end.

Everyone in this story seems to feel they are better than the next person for one reason or another. The white men, well that’s just what they were raised to believe possibly from their parents, the woman thinks she is better than them all because the white men are protecting her from the black men, and the black men are made to feel less than by everyone at the event. The woman dancing controlling their sexuality, the white men making them fight each other, and then them scrambling around on this electrified carpet only for advertising tokens. Yet the narrator feels like he is better than the rest of the boxers because he was the only person invited there to give a speech. His speech about humility while he felt he was better than any man there of color. It sent a contradictory message to me, because he felt better than but still allowed the white men to control his actions of the evening by doing what they told him to do; just to get the money instead of standing up for himself and what he felt was right. Then he took the briefcase of money and was so happy about it, but they were only sending him to a school for black men. Where is the pride, or dignity in that? If they had really been doing him a favor they would have allowed him the same education their children where getting. Now that is what I feel would’ve been fair. He spoke of “cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man” (Ellison 286 par.6) and yet these relations of the evening were far from friendly. This is also another contradiction.

In closing, I chose the “Battle Royal” because I, in my own life, have had to deal with many of my own struggles; sexism, racism, and prejudices for the way I appeared. This story is about putting yourself in the shoes of another. Ellison’s use of satire, imagery, and contradiction allows the reader to peak into the struggles experienced by these African American males from the narrator’s point of view. In the end, he swallowed his dignity to be given an opportunity to be allowed to speak, along with the prize of education. But who should have to be beaten to get a scholarship? During his speech he spoke of humility and yet was humiliated all throughout the evening. Even though the story was printed as fiction, you can be sure that situations like this were a regular occurrence at that time, and possibly still to some degree happen in this day and age.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. "Battle Royal ." Kirszner, G. Laurie and Stephen R. Mandell. Literature Reading, Reacting, Writing Compact 7th Edition. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning , 2011, 2010, 2007. 278-288.

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