Study Guide

Battle Royal; or, The Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison

Battle Royal; or, The Invisible Man Summary

Summary

The nameless, first-person narrator begins by suggesting that for the first twenty years of his life, he has looked to others to answer questions of self-definition. What he has discovered is that it is only he himself who can figure out who he is, but to do this, he must first"discover that [he] is an invisible man!’’ The story unfolds by narrating a scene in which those who are "blind" are not only the narrator, who literally wears a blindfold, but also those who abuse the narrator, sizing him up as mere stereotype, erasing his individuality and human dimension.

The narrator's question of self identity is not restricted to the mere twenty years of his own life but to the lives of his grandparents, who were born as slaves and freed eighty-five years before. This was a freedom that made them rhetorically part of a "United" States, but that in the social sphere kept African-Americans separate from whites like separate ‘‘fingers on the hand.’’

On his deathbed, the narrator's grandfather gives him odd and disturbing advice. The grandfather seemed to live a hardworking and conventional life, but his final words confirm his reputation as an ‘‘odd man’’ who might ‘‘cause trouble.’’ He tells the narrator that he has felt like a traitor and a spy his entire life and should have never given up his gun after Reconstruction (see historical notes, below). He advises the narrator to keep up a "good fight'' by living with "your head in the lion's mouth.'' The grandfather continues, ‘‘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.’’ The grandfather's final fierce words are ‘‘Learn it to the younguns.’’ This dying speech alarms the narrator's folks and haunts the narrator through the rest of the story, especially since the narrator feels so well liked and is even praised ‘‘by the most lily-white men of the town.’’

Although uneasy about the grandfather's final words, the narrator makes a very successful speech at his graduation in which he argues that humility is the secret to success. The speech is so well liked that he is invited to deliver it to ‘‘a gathering of the town's leading white citizens.’’

When the narrator arrives at the main ballroom of the hotel, he is told to participate with some of his schoolmates in a "battle royal.'' The fight is to take place in a large room with a portable boxing ring, around which chairs have been arranged for all the men with tuxedoes and cigars to sit as they watch. Riding with his schoolmates in the elevator to the room, the narrator feels superior to them, likening himself to a ‘‘potential Booker T. Washington’’ whose dignity might be tarnished through association with such rough characters.

Entering the room, the narrator is handed a pair of boxing gloves as he looks around. Through the haze of cigar smoke he sees all the prominent white men of the town—‘‘bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants’’—getting drunk on whiskey. The narrator and his schoolmates are shuttled to the front of the ballroom and ringed by a crowd of menacing, curious and amused faces. At the front of the room, there is dead silence as the boys see ‘‘a magnificent blonde—stark naked’’ standing directly before them.

With the crowd of white men looking on, the narrator and his schoolmates do not know how to react. Some of the...

(The entire section is 1435 words.)