What does the blindfold symbolize in chapter 1, "Battle Royal," of Invisible Man?

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A blindfold, in isolation, is imbued with many different symbolic connotations, but in the context of the "battle royal" in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the blindfold takes on even more representational significance.

The boys taking part in the battle royal are blindfolded by the white leaders of...

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A blindfold, in isolation, is imbued with many different symbolic connotations, but in the context of the "battle royal" in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the blindfold takes on even more representational significance.

The boys taking part in the battle royal are blindfolded by the white leaders of their community. The men doing the blindfolding are taking charge, symbolically and literally, of what the boys are able to perceive while fighting one another. That these perceptions are controlled and managed by blindfolds applied by the white men is significant; even now, many might argue that much of the American experience is controlled and managed by the white male population, no matter who is wearing the metaphorical blindfold.

A blindfold is an item that ensures vulnerability, as the ability to see is compromised. Anyone wearing a blindfold is forced to trust the people who act as guides, or they must grasp helplessly in darkness. The white men who force vulnerability on the boys do so gleefully, enjoying their power—perhaps forgetting that when one of the five senses is compromised sometimes the other four can strengthen. The narrator experiences the blindfold himself, but the blindfold actually opens his eyes, ironically, to the racist state of the world in which he finds himself.

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As he lashes out blindly at his equally exploited opponents, the narrator is assailed on all sides by the sounds of a drunken, baying mob of white men, for whose delectation these young African American boys have been forced to degrade themselves. The blindfold that he wears during the fight is symbolic of awareness; while the narrator has metaphorically "blinded" himself to the harsh realities of life in this deeply racist society, the literal blindfold he wears in this scene allows him to finally understand the full extent of his own oppression.

Before he participated in this unseemly spectacle, the young boy never really understood the depths to which prejudice can so often run. In that sense, one could say that he wore a metaphorical blindfold that hid the truth of what society is really like. Yet ironically, the experience of wearing a literal blindfold opens his eyes to the status of African Americans in society and the abominable treatment they receive from their white oppressors.

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The blindfold is also a symbol of the narrator's sense of helplessness in a white supremacist system in which he is both used against his will and complicit in being used so that he can secure minor gains. It's significant that the blindfold is described as a white cloth and that the narrator can only see through a narrow slit that he creates when he frowns. He is, thus, literally blinded by whiteness and can only see through it when he registers a gesture of discontent.

The narrator describes how his inability to see renders him to a state similar to that of a drunk or a baby. All he can do is follow voices and push his weight against the bodies of the other fighters in the ring so that he can win this foolhardy battle. Through the slit he creates, he can see gold coins and greenbacks strewn about the floor of the ring. It is not until he wins the Battle Royal and the blindfold is removed that he recognizes the money as worthless—the gold coins are merely tokens. When he was unable to see, the narrator believed that the battle for money and the prestige of winning the fight justified the brutality that the young black men expressed to each other in the ring. However, when his sight is restored, he realizes that his efforts were for naught. The promise of money was merely an illusion; he'll never really possess the capital of those who forced him into the ring. Later, too, he will see that his ambitions will always be stunted by racism.

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The blindfold symbolizes how the narrator himself is blind to the world around him and it also symbolizes how others are blind to who he really is.  They stereotype him instead of looking at him as an individual person.  Enotes states:

The story unfolds by narrating a scene in which those who are "blind" are not only the narrator, who literally wears a blindfold, but also those who abuse the narrator, sizing him up as mere stereotype, erasing his individuality and human dimension.

The narrator is blind simply because he has been raised in a world where the African-Americans and Caucasians have been kept separate; therefore, their lives are, in many ways, mysteries to one another.

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