What is the central conflict in "Battle Royal"?

The central conflict in Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal" is an internal conflict within the narrator as he struggles between what he knows is right (and wrong) and what he submits to in order to please his white neighbors.

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The central conflict in "Battle Royal" is of the character versus society variety: the narrator conflicts with the white society that demeans and oppresses him. First, he is invited to give his speech, which champions black "humility" as the pathway to progress, to a group of local white...

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The central conflict in "Battle Royal" is of the character versus society variety: the narrator conflicts with the white society that demeans and oppresses him. First, he is invited to give his speech, which champions black "humility" as the pathway to progress, to a group of local white businessmen. It is, presumably, this speech that makes him a target of his black peers. Then, he is compelled, among a group of young black men, to look at a blond white woman who is "stark naked." Some of the powerful white men "threatened us if we looked and others if we did not," he says. One boy pleads to go home, and another faints. Another gets an erection that he tries to hide, and the narrator is aroused as well, but terribly fearful at the same time. "Some were [...] crying and in hysteria," even after they are led away from the naked woman.

Next, they are forced to box one another blindfolded for the enjoyment of the white men. The narrator feels as though he is in a "dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths," as he feels all of the white men—and the other young black men there, who do not like him—to be his antagonists. He feels as though "all nine of the boys" begin to strike at him all at one time. When he falls, he is pushed back up to his feet, and he is eventually forced to fight Tatlock, the biggest of the black men, alone. Though he offers Tatlock a bribe to go easy, the bigger man wants to beat the speaker for himself and not just to please the white men. The speaker is, quite literally, at odds with everyone else in the room.

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"Battle Royal" is actually chapter 1 of Ralph Ellison's acclaimed novel Invisible Man, though it is often excerpted as a short story in textbooks. In the story, the narrator is a young African-American man who is invited to give a speech to a group of powerful, influential white male community leaders. This is the same speech he had recently delivered at his high school graduation, and it echoes a famous speech by Booker T. Washington in which he advocates for an accommodationist approach to race relations.

When the narrator arrives to deliver his speech, he is told he must compete in a boxing match, the battle royal of the title. He and other young black men are blindfolded and forced to beat each other brutally for the entertainment of the white men in the audience. After the boxing match, the young men are forced to collect their monetary "reward" from an electrified mat, which continuously shocks them as the reach for the bills. The whole scene is excessively demeaning; however, the narrator still wants to give his speech. He does so, bruised and bloody from the fight, and in the speech, probably as a result of his subconscious reaction to the oppression he has just experienced, says "social equality" instead of "social responsibility" in his speech. The narrator is questioned and challenged about this slip-up, and he says he meant to say "responsibility." However, the reader can see the seeds of rebellion beginning to be sown somewhere inside the narrator.

The central conflict comes down to racial inequality and the oppression black men face at the hands of powerful white men. This is a central conflict of the novel as a whole, as well. Further, the battle pits black men against each other for the benefit of the white men. Later in the novel, when the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he is accused of selling out his own race for the benefit of white men, so this early conflict foreshadows another later one in the novel.

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The central conflict in "Battle Royal" is between the narrator's desire for what he (in a slip of the tongue) calls "social equality," or an equal chance for success in society, and the desire of white men to uphold the existing social order by humiliating and subordinating young, black men as an inferior group. In this scene, black men are forced to do what the white men want, such as brutally box with each other, look at a scantily clad white woman (an act kind of behavior that in other contexts could provoke a lynching), and then as a "reward" dive onto a rug where coins and bills have been scattered. They do so only to find the rug is electrified and they are shocked as they scramble for the money. This amuses the white men—and after the fact the black men learn that the gold coins they scrambled for are worthless brass pieces. All of this reinforces the idea that white men own all the resources and hold all the cards. It appears that to get ahead at all, the narrator must accept humiliation and pretend to be submissive, which conflicts with his natural desire to be treated with dignity and equality.

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One might argue that the central conflict in Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal" (the first chapter of Invisible Man) is actually an internal conflict within the narrator. Indeed, there is plenty of conflict in the piece, between the narrator and the white society that oppresses him, among the narrator and the other "boys" who fight with him, and even between the narrator and his grandfather. But the most important conflict is between the narrator and his own self-respect.

Deep down, the narrator knows that his submissiveness toward his white neighbors, his speech about humility, and his desire to remain firmly "in his place" are wrong. His grandfather's dying words suggest that, for his grandfather calls himself a traitor. Although the narrator never explains whom his grandfather is betraying, we get the idea that he is betraying himself through his own meekness (even though the grandfather thinks that this black submissiveness will eventually somehow overcome white oppression).

Still, the narrator goes along acting a part, giving a speech that wins the approval of his white neighbors with its emphasis on black humility, obeying even the most violent and cruel orders during the "fight," and refusing to stand up for himself. He even gives his speech to the jeering audience, standing there bloody from the fight, yet still obeying every word. He is even pleased with his prize, a scholarship to a Black college.

Yet somewhere inside him, the narrator continues to struggle. His slip during his speech when he substitutes the word "equality" for "responsibility" suggests that, as does his horror at what these white men are forcing him to do. He knows it is not right, yet he feels trapped and doesn't know the way out. So he pushes back his conscience and betrays himself by obeying submissively, because it is what is expected of him.

The narrator's dream at the end of the story also reveals his inner conflict. His grandfather's words in the dream show that the narrator knows that he, too, has turned into a traitor against himself through his obedience and that he, too, has entered into an endless cycle of submission and an endless struggle with himself that will be difficult to overcome.

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