In the "Battle Royal" section of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, what are examples of tone, diction, and irony, particularly with respect to the influence of the past on the future?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The “Battle Royal” episode of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man can be examined in terms of such literary techniques as irony, tone, and diction and also with regard to the theme of the influence of the past on the future.

Ellison’s diction (or choices of particular words) in this section is especially worth noting. The “Battle Royal” episode is narrated in first person, by the very character who experienced the events he describes. Therefore, the narrator’s word choices inevitably reveal a great deal about his character and personality.  In general his diction is clear, straightforward, and unpretentious.  The style he chooses encourages us to trust him as a reporter of events, especially since he is willing to criticize himself, as when he says,

I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my experiences to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!

The phrasing here is clear and direct. Nothing in the diction is confusing or difficult to understand. The narrator appears to be speaking honestly, especially about his past and the influence of his past on his present and future. He reveals his mistakes but also reveals that he has learned from them.  Without his realization of his past mistakes (he implies), his present and future would be merely repetitions of his past. However, he seems to have profited by realizing his errors. His tone is humble, modest, and sincere. He doesn’t try to hide his past errors. Instead, he implies that he has profited from them, and the implication of this passage is that others can similarly profit from realizing and admitting their own errors.

The diction of these sentences consists of the kind of wording that practically any reasonably intelligent reader can understand.  The narrator is not trying to impress us with big words or complicated sentence structures.  He is not trying to show off his vocabulary.  The word “boomeranging” is unusual, but its meaning is immediately clear.  Irony is an important part of this quotation, since the narrator thinks that he has had to learn, from painful experience, lessons that seem to be innate to most people. Looking back on his earlier life, he is surprised by the ironic fact that it appears to have taken him a long time to learn what other people seem to know immediately.

Yet part of the further irony of this passage, of course, is that most people can instantly relate to the narrator’s feelings; most people, ironically, have gone through the same kind of painful learning experience that he has endured, even though he ironically thinks that they have not. Ironically, the very experience that he considers uncommon is quite common indeed.  His assumption that it is not contributes to the tone of the quoted sentences -- a tone which is modest and humble and self-effacing.