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“Battle Royal” is rife with symbolism and allusion, especially through the section of the story that depicts the degradation of the narrator and other young African American men. The naked white dancer and the way in which her sexually provocative dancing taunts the young black men is symbolic of the view of race relations between black men and white women at the time the story was set (the 1940s in the American South): white women were off-limits and African American men were considered dangerous and uncontrollable around women. Thus, the dancer represents everything the men the men cannot and should not look at; they could be lynched for looking at such a woman in the street, yet here they are forced to look at her as their emotions and sexual desires are provoked as a prelude to the battle royal. The woman is described as having “yellow [hair] like that of a circus kewpie doll,” thus symbolizing the cheap and tawdry lowlife. The narrator describes the woman as seeming “like a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea,” thus symbolizing her like the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey: women of the sea (mermaids) who lured men to the deaths in the ocean. The American flag tattooed on the woman’s belly is an icon of Americana, reflective of the American white man’s control of the black man (discussed by critic Louis Althusser in his discussion of iconography).
Later, the men fight over pieces of gold—or so they think. The narrator later learns that these “gold” bits were “brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile.” The false gold symbolizes the false hope with which the white man lures and taunts the black man in the story. The narrator earns a prize: a leather briefcase containing a scholarship. The briefcase is a notable symbol throughout Invisible Man (the novel for which this short story forms the opening chapter), changing its meaning throughout the novel. In this story, when the narrator receives the briefcase, it contains hope for him though there are strong
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