Compare and contrast Ralph Ellison's view of the South in "Battle Royal" with William Faulkner's in "A Rose for Emily."    

Both stories are set in the South and explore racism in the South. Faulkner's story is more subtle, while Ellison's story is more blatant.

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William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" and Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal," a chapter from his novel Invisible Man that is also sometimes excerpted as a short story in literary anthologies, are both set in the South in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. The characters, circumstances, and narrative...

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William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" and Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal," a chapter from his novel Invisible Man that is also sometimes excerpted as a short story in literary anthologies, are both set in the South in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. The characters, circumstances, and narrative voices are all quite different, but both share the Southern setting and the theme of racial relations in the South. 

Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" describes a town legend named Miss Emily Grierson whose family was once important, rich, and powerful in the Mississippi community in which the story is set. The narrative voice is the voice of the town itself, a gossipy perspective that gets all of its information from outside observation, rumor, and town history. The narrator does not actually know Emily; they are not friends and probably not even acquaintances. However, because of the Griersons' reputation, the town pays attention to Emily's life from the time she is a young woman until her death, which is announced at the beginning of the story.

Emily is a staunch traditionalist, likely because she fondly remembers the time when her family name meant something in the town. Now, her house is decrepit, and, as it turns out, she's keeping a dead body in a bed in her house. Emily tries to hold on to old privileges granted to her family in more prosperous times. Meanwhile, the town around her grows and changes. Faulkner presents Emily as a symbol of a dying culture, namely the antebellum South. Before the Civil War, the South was thriving due to its use of slave labor. Race is more of a subtext in this story than it is in Ellison's novel, but in "A Rose for Emily," the title character has a servant who is a black man, and we can infer that her family was more influential when they had money and power, probably from being descended from plantation owners. The implication is that some Southerners want to hang on to the past, including the extreme racial inequality that characterized the antebellum period, while the rest of the world moves on.

Ellison's "Battle Royal" is much more blatant in its engagement with Southern racism. The story sees a group of young black men literally fight each other for the entertainment of rich, powerful white men, who egg them on and insult them as they fight. After the battle, the young men, including our narrator, are further demeaned by being forced to chase after money on an electrocuted rug. The narrator and his fellow fighters are treated as subhuman, and there is no question that the white men are racist and feel superior to the young black men. The narrator (the "invisible man") ends up giving a speech where he mistakenly says "equality" and is immediately challenged by the white men. They patronize him by giving him a briefcase and a scholarship to a college for African American students. This episode is an early but fundamental experience for the narrator as he learns to navigate the racism of the world around him. Like Faulkner's story, "Battle Royal" is set in the South, though the narrator later moves to New York City. He finds that the North is not the utopia he expected coming from the South.

In sum, both stories in some way explore issues of racism in the South in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. In Ellison's story, race is much more at the forefront of the story, though.

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Relating these two stories to a shared depiction of (or commentary on) the South seems like a rather tenuous proposition. There are, however, some ways to draw a connection between the stories. 

Violence is the most dominating theme that the two stories share. Though the violence in Ellison's story is blatant, it is driven by a deeper implied violence which animates the men who set up the fight. The willingness to exploit minority children for entertainment demonstrates a rather monstrous acceptance of or alignment with violence on the part of the men who set up the fight. There is a wickedness to the formula, inviting children to fight one another then compete for a scholarship with speeches.

The violence in Faulkner's story is similarly subtle and implicit but does not share the outward manifestation of violence with Ellison's story. Though a dead body is discovered in the end, the death is not depicted directly and murder remains only suggested. 

Furthermore, Miss Emily's behavior demonstrates a willingness to exploit her standing in the community. She refuses to pay taxes and refuses to explain why she wants to buy the rat poison because she knows she can get away with it. Like the men who set  up the fight in "Battle Royal", Emily is willing to use her privileged position for her own selfish gain.

Beyond violence and exploitation, there is also a connection to be drawn regarding the consolidation of power in the hands of small groups of individuals who yield that power in capacities that are public and private, official and unofficial. 

Regarding the South in these stories, there is not much to say beyond the fact that each story is set there and explores certain cultural elements of the South. While "A Rose for Emily" can be seen as an expression of Southern mores and Southern identity, "Battle Royal" is not as expansive in its perspective, nor as representative in its efforts as it is focused on the experiences of one boy and narrated through him. 

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William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” and Ralph Ellison’s story “Battle Royal” differ significantly, in a variety of ways, in their depictions of the south. Those ways include the following:

  • In Ellison’s story, issues of race and racial discrimination are front and center; race is not nearly as important an issue in “A Rose for Emily.”
  • In Faulkner’s story, many of the southern characters (almost all of whom are white), seem well mannered, genteel, thoughtful, and considerate. In Ellison’s story, many of the white characters (in a story with a large number of African Americans) are vicious, thoughtless, and abusive.
  • Ellison’s story focuses on the experiences of a young black man; Faulkner’s story focuses on the experiences of a white woman whose great age is strongly emphasized.
  • Both stories deal with social culture and social customs, but Ellison’s story is mainly satirical, whereas Faulkner’s (as its title suggests) is almost elegiac.
  • Actual physical conflict is strongly emphasized in Ellison’s story; no such conflict is emphasized in Faulkner’s, which is a much gentler tale.
  • In Ellison’s story, some characters go out of their way to dehumanize and brutalize other characters; in Faulkner’s story, some characters go out of their way to treat Miss Emily with dignity and respect. As the narrator notes near the very beginning of Faulkner’s tale,

Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from . . . 1894 . . .

  • Miss Emily feels that she enjoys, and is entitled to, a great deal of power and respect in her town. The young black boy featured in “Battle Royal” is, of course, not nearly so confident of his status in society.
  • Miss Emily displays a kind of pride throughout her tale; the attitude of the boy in “Battle Royal,” even after he has been brutalized, is one of great humility.

All in all, in would be hard to think of two stories about the south that are as different in tone, characterization, or intent as these two are.

 

 

 

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