Style and Technique
One of this story’s greatest achievements is successfully rendering the narrator’s dreamlike and emotional memories, although these are often abstract in their lack of full detail—in contrast to the sharp, cinematic depiction of the “reality” of the battle royal experience, yet with each style reinforcing the idea of the other. The narrator’s recollections tend to be simple declarative sentences using the first-person pronoun: “I was naïve. I was looking for myself.” Through this highly personal medium the reader learns of the narrator’s guilt and confusion about his grandfather’s advice and his innocent lack of understanding of the mean-spirited intentions of the white establishment.
By contrast, the battle royal descriptions contain minute specificity, with details creating a word picture of place and setting: “It was a large room with a high ceiling. Chairs were arranged in neat rows around three sides of a portable boxing ring. The fourth side was clear, revealing a gleaming space of polished floor.” Such straightforward description alternates with metaphors and similes that suggest the bizarre and exotic nature of what is happening: The blindfolded boys grope about “like blind, cautious crabs,” their fists “testing the air like the knobbed feelers of hypersensitive snails.” The nude dancer has yellow hair of “a circus kewpie doll,” her breasts are “round as the domes of East Indian temples.” The scenes in the boxing ring are especially effective, with visually descriptive phrases cutting quickly from image to image to convey the chaos of the blindfolded match: “The room spun round me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces.” The overly rhetorical style of the graduation speech slyly makes fun of the overwrought prose of that genre: “We of the younger generation extol the wisdom of that great leader and educator who first spoke these flaming words of wisdom.”
Throughout, Ellison matches style and content, his medium conveying his message. Ellison’s interest in and knowledge of jazz improvisation (he was a professional-level musician) is evident in the rhythms of his prose, which soars with a free exuberance yet still retains a tough-minded discipline. Even long after they were written, his verbal improvisations retain a freshness and newness assuring that this short story and the novel that grew out of it will remain essential reading.