What is the plot of "Battle Royal"?
Plot is a principle of Formalist criticism (and later Structuralist criticism) and identifies the movement underlying action. Plot is considered by Formalist theory to be different from story, which can be summarized as a progression of events. Our first person narrator is a black student who has excelled in high school and won the valedictorian's place as revealed in the fact that he delivers the graduation "oration." "Battle Royal," the egregious experience of our protagonist-narrator, is a coming of age story, but one of a particularly terrible nature.
Plot is the fiber, we might say, that draws the motives and consequences from the web of the action of a story, and it can be set as an archetype within universal structures. In this archetypal coming of age story, framed as a reminiscence, the protagonist is given wisdom for his journey while at his grandfather's deathbed. Confused and bewildered, he ruminates on the words of wisdom until just after his graduation. Having been an exemplary student of any race, he is praised by the town leadership and invited to deliver his speech to a gathering of town elders.
It is here that he meets his enemy, but one who has been disguised and here throws off his mask. Our protagonist had been sidetracked from recognizing his enemy because minor antagonists are invited to surround him. But as the grizzly events of the night unfold in a "smoker," an all-male event of drunken lewdness and relentless violence, the true character of his enemy--enemies--is made clear.
After he and all the boys who were invited are beaten, humiliated (viciously disparaging the theme of his oration: humility is the secret to progress), taunted, ridiculed and beaten some more, our protagonist is given a reward by his true enemy and antagonist. This enemy forces him to deliver his speech regardless of his dangerous, gaping injuries. The reward is a briefcase holding a scholarship to the state college.
It was a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. My eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly off the floor. I was overjoyed;...
Our literally and psychologically beaten down protagonist dreams that night of being with his grandfather at a circus and of a briefcase holding one envelope bearing the state seal and one after another after another after another. The last one he is made to open and read aloud: "'To Whom It May Concern,' I intoned. 'Keep This Nigger Boy Running.'" Our protagonist is faced with a new reality and must decide how to deal with it as a young man who has come of age. Will he find himself following his grandfather's life of being "a traitor all [his] born days, a spy in the enemy's country" or will he choose something other than keeping his "head in the lion's mouth"?
Will he take the scholarship that came with such a high price or will he take a different route? All we know is that he speaks to us from twenty years in his future; that he says he was naive; that he is no one but who he is, "I am nobody but myself"; that he is now an "invisible man," "first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!"; and that he is "ashamed of [himself] for having at one time been ashamed" of his grandparents. Yet, his language tells us that he is well educated, so from that we might guess that in his coming of age he did take the scholarship "to the state college for Negroes," but what was his relationship to the "lion's mouth" while he was there?
The story, which describes a horrifying episode in the first-person narrator’s life in a southern town, Greenwood, has its own independent unity. Ellison’s narrator identifies himself as a "ginger" colored black who has distinguished himself in school, and who has given a superb speech at his high-school graduation ceremony. He has been asked to give the same speech before a meeting of town dignitaries, and goes to the meeting expecting to be received warmly and sympathetically. Instead of such friendliness, he is shown the very worst and most discriminatory vindictiveness of the members of the town’s white power structure.