How can I analyze the symbolic purpose of the naked blonde in “Battle Royal” by Ellison? What is her purpose in the text and how does it relate to the story’s exploration of racism and the American dream?
The story “Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison, although originally published as a stand-alone story, eventually evolved into the first chapter of Ellison's novel The Invisible Man. It is the story of the coming of age of an unnamed narrator, who is struggling to discover his own identity as a man, an adult, and an African-American.
As you write your essay on the symbolic role of the nude woman, you should consider the links between patriarchy and racial oppression. Both the nude woman and the black boys are figures oppressed by patriarchy, without power. They both serve as a form of spectacle, or objects of what Lacan terms "the gaze," a position which deprives them of agency and identity, constituting them as projections of the desires of the spectators.
In most coming-of-age stories, there is some form of sexual initiation. Here, however, the narrator does not have an opportunity to engage in some form of active sexual maturation. Rather than having a relationship to the woman, he, like the woman, is simply entertainment for the older white men.
As you work on your essay, you will want to think about how the stereotypical American Dream of the period in which Ellison was writing would include the young male protagonist succeeding in obtaining the blonde girl as a reward for overcoming obstacles in his life. Here, though, the disempowered African-American narrator is excluded from that system of blonde-white-female-as-reward, and himself, like the woman, is deprived of any independent identity or will, other than the ability to think subversively while his actions are constrained.