In Invisible Man, chapter one, which was originally published before the rest of the novel as a short story called “Battle Royal,” can be seen as both a rite of passage and as an initiation.  Why?

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The Battle Royal section of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man does in fact serve as a rite of passage and an initiation into an unequal American society for the young, unnamed protagonist. The Battle Royal functions this way because the young man gets his first taste of violent discrimination. This section foreshadows the violence that runs throughout the novel, the violence that will mark the better part of the protagonist’s life:

“So I gulped it down, blood, saliva and all, and continued. (What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!).... I closed my ears and swallowed blood until I was nauseated” (30).

He does not realize it at the moment, but the violence he faces in this passage is an initiation into his brutal realities as an “invisible” man, as a black man marginalized by society. The narrator acknowledges this in his parenthetical asides in this passage.

Moreover, the ceremonial feel of the scene imitates rites of passages such as graduations. Indeed, at the battle royal, the narrator gives the same speech that he gave at his high school graduation:

“On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress.... It was a great success. Everyone praised me and I was invited to give the speech at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens. It was a triumph for our whole community.” (17).

This is a mocking graduation ceremony in which young black men assault one another for wealthy white men’s entertainment, and the perverse pomp and circumstance that surrounds the event highlights the ceremonial feel of the battle royal.

Thus, this opening chapter functions as both a rite of passage and an initiation ceremony in that it prepares the narrator for the struggles that he will experience as a young black man in a racially stratified society.

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