What is the purpose of the dream at the end of the story "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison?

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Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is the first chapter of The Invisible Man . It tells the story of an African American teenager who is pitted against other young men in a blind “battle royal” for the amusement of white men, who then presented him with a scholarship...

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Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is the first chapter of The Invisible Man. It tells the story of an African American teenager who is pitted against other young men in a blind “battle royal” for the amusement of white men, who then presented him with a scholarship to a black college. The narrator then gives the valedictorians speech to the group and repeats the phrase “social responsibility,” which the men love to hear.

The dream at the end of the story is a commentary on Booker T. Washington’s idea that social responsibility, rather than social equality, should be the goal of African Americans in the United States. The narrator, though he is chasing the American dream, understands that pushing social responsibility will ultimately be a fool's errand. He will never be accepted, and he will always be asked to fight for what he has—as he does in the “battle royal” for the white men that act as benevolent benefactors. Ellison is making a point at the end of the story, explaining that social equality is the only thing that will bring real progress to African Americans in the United States.

The Dream is poignant; it epitomizes the reality of what social responsibility means for African Americans in the United States. When the narrator opens the envelope, he receives in the dream the note inside says,

"To Whom It May Concern," I intoned. "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running."

The message of the note that he will have to chase the dream for his entire life relates to the idea of choosing social responsibility over social equality. If he continues to play by the rules set by white society, he will be chasing the dream forever. Until he and all African Americans choose to embrace the fight for equality, they will never be equal, and they will never have to stop chasing the dream that White America puts before them.

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The narrator has the dream after returning home, overjoyed after having won "a scholarship to the state college for Negroes." In the dream, he is drooling blood, and he realizes that the "gold coins" for which he and the other young black men in the ring were scrambling are nothing but tokens advertising a brand of automobile. He looks at a picture of his grandfather, whose eyes seem to follow him. All of this indicates that his hard work, as well as his willingness to suffer brutality in exchange for respect, is futile. To further highlight the absurdity of the narrator's situation, Ellison situates his dream in a circus.

The briefcase in the dream is a simulacrum of the briefcase that the narrator wins after the Battle Royal. But in the dream, instead of finding the coveted scholarship notice, he finds a mise-en-abîme of envelopes. The detail that each envelope is "official" and stamped with a state seal could symbolize either the narrator's sense of his own importance and impending success or systemic complicity in the narrator's oppression. It could also indicate both of those things.

The narrator's grandfather informs him that those empty envelopes are "years." Only one envelope contains a message which justifies the existence of all the other envelopes: "To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." The message means that the narrator will always pursue success, for this is what society teaches him to do, but he will never achieve his full ambitions, because he is black and discriminated against. His grandfather's laughter, which rings in his ears when he awakes, is a mockery of the narrator's foolishness and inability to understand what he has read. The narrator continues to have this dream, which is a warning of his social condition, for many years before he understands what it means.

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It seems clear that the grandfather's deathbed warning combined with the narrator's grueling battle experience has unsettled the narrator; his dream contains information about life's beginnings and endings, and the knowledge he now carries about his life as a black man. 

The grandfather's refusal to laugh at the dream circus clowns seems to symbolize the seriousness of the narrator's situation. Graduation from high school is a milestone, usually a time for optimism; for the narrator, instead, it is a mirthless time. Graduating from childhood to adulthood means accepting the full weight of society's treatment of black men.

The envelopes the narrator dreams himself opening are symbolic of the endless endurance tests he has been put through, and will be put through as he ages. Like the "battle royal" of the previous evening, the narrator must perform a number of arbitrary tasks for permission to do what he wants to do, to achieve anything greater for himself. (This unending rabbit hole of envelope-opening seems to reference Booker T. Washington's "politics of respectability" argument.)

We can only guess Ellison's purpose in using a dream sequence to comment on these themes. Perhaps he means to highlight that a black man's agency can be taken away from him even in the subconscious, so punitive is society's judgment. 

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