How does the first paragraph of the story sum up the conflict that the narrator confronts in Battle Royal?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ralph Ellison's first paragraph of Invisible Man begins with the sentence, "I am an invisible man" which he clarifies with the final sentence of that paragraph,

When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ellison's narrator is "invisible" because he could be any black man since he is perceived not as an individual, but as a stereotype.  He is the stereotypical "Negro animal," considered subhuman, that reacts according to his desires and physical urges.  Placed in a ring, he will fight the other males, especially with a woman there.  He desires a white woman like no other, he will fight others in his way, for he is unthinking.  The cigar-smoking white men do not look at faces, they simply enjoy the animalism of the "fenced" situation they have created in which they exploit the young men for their own prurient delights.

As the novel progresses, the narrator learns that no matter what he tries to become, no matter what group promises him that he can truly be a man, he yet remains invisible.  In the final chapter, the narrator decries the falsity of society and communism:

I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility.
jerseygyrl1983's profile pic

jerseygyrl1983 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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Beyond stereotype, the narrator's conflict is also between the distortion of his identity and his need to cater to that distortion in order to get the things that he needs from white society.

What is most striking about this narrator is his self-awareness -- that is, his keen awareness of his distinct place as a black man in American society. The first line of the paragraph embraces the tragedy of his circumstance: the inability of his countrymen and women to allow him the fullness of his humanity. He denies that he is a creature of fantasy -- "a spook" like those who haunted Poe or a "Hollywood-movie ectoplasm. However, he is, indeed, a creature of racist fantasy. His use of the word "spook" is double-edged, as it was a commonly used pejorative against blacks in Ellison's time. 

As a result of the projection of these fantasies, his very tangible body seems to no longer be his own. He is, as Jean-Paul Sartre feared, constantly vulnerable to the perceptions of others, who consistently distort him due to their unwillingness to regard him individually. This leads him to carry out, "in spite of [himself]," the advice of his grandfather to undermine white people "with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller [sic] you till they vomit or bust wide open." He is praised for his behavior by the most "lily-white men in town," just as his grandfather had been regarded as an example of model behavior among black men.

There is a "treachery" in this, as defined by his grandfather, that puzzles the narrator. His dishonest self-presentation does not awaken the trickster in him; instead, he feels guilty:

When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost.

There is an inherent dishonesty, according to the narrator, in the relationship between black and white people that becomes mired in confusion, as black people are burdened with trying to figure out what whites really want, while white people are given the privilege to decide on who they want black people to be -- obsequious, beastly, or traitorous; they decide.

The ability of whites to decide and to put black people into the position of having to anticipate their needs allows for the possibility of something as extreme as the Battle Royal. It is possible that Ellison took inspiration for the scene from historical records of black male slaves who were forced to fight to the death on plantations, as a form of entertainment. Or, perhaps, he took a skeptical view of America's fascination with black male boxers. In any case, Ellison uses the Battle Royal scene to display white society's fears and erotic fascination with black men, as well as the willingness of black men to cater to those fears and fetishizations in order to gain a stake in world in which they are not allowed to exist fully.