What is the most important element of fiction in the "Battle Royal" story?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Recurring throughout the "Battle Royal" passage extracted from Ralph Ellison's  Invisibile Man, are layers of conflict.  First of all, Ellison introduces his novel with the observation that after the "painful boomeranging" of his experiences, he has come to the realization that he is nobody but himself; a realization that he made after first discovering that he is "an invisible man."  That is, he is a man who exists only as a creature to be exploited.  Then, he mentions the dying words of his grandfather which establish the various conflicts in the story--as the narrator says, "It was he who caused the trouble."  The grandfather tells his son, the narrator's father,

"...I want you to keep up the good fight.  I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction.  Live with your head in the lion's mouth.  I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open."

As the young idealistic graduate who expects to be able to give his valedictorian oration before dignitaries of the town, the narrator finds himself in conflict with being a stereotype of his race. He is a young black male confronted with what is thought to be his greatest desire:  a white woman.  In this situation, Ellison's narrator says that he feels "a wave of irrational guilt and fear" as he is attracted in spite of himself, and yet he wants to destroy her--"to love her and to murder her."  Another young man tries to hide his lustful feelings while some shake with fear of what will be done to them if they look. 

The blonde dances and the "big shots" watch her "with facination and faintly smiling at our fear."  Soon, the drunken white men begin to paw at her, Ellison recognizes the same terror and disgust in her eyes that are in his and others' eyes in this conflict with victim and exploiter.  Then, when the boys are blindfolded, they are again set against themselves, having been told that if they do not fight, the men themselves will hit them:

Blinfolded, I could no longer control my motions.  I had no dignity.  I stumbled about....

Once the fight is ended, the men have the boys lie on the rug and grab for coins and bills.  But the rug has been wired, and the narrator and the others receive electrical shocks when they touch the "coins." When he tries to grag the leg of a chair occupied by Mr. Colcord, the owner of a chain of movie houses, the man kicks him "viciously in the chest."

Finally, after being bruised and tortured, the narrator is allowed to deliver his speech, but he is "invisible" to the white men who  loudly converse throughout his speech.  However, when he says "racial equality" instead of "racial responsibility," there is a sudden stillness and hostile phrases are shouted at him.  When asked to repeat his words, the narrator says "responsibility" again.  So, he is allowed to begin again with simultaneous talking.  Yet, when he finishes, there is "thunderous applause" which mocks him. 

Receiving a scholarship to the state college for Negroes, the narrator feels "an importance that I had never dreamed."  However, when he returns home and dreams that night, his grandfather's curse emerges in his dream and the narrator opens envelope after envelope until he reads a note about keeping him running.

Read the study guide:
Battle Royal; or, The Invisible Man

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