How does the plot develop in Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison?

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The action in Ellison's Battle Royal is framed by references to the boy's grandfather, who early on is quoted as telling his own son to infiltrate the white world and to defeat it with agreement, appeasement and grins. 

"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."

The boy worries that he is unwittingly and unintentionally already carrying out a program of acquiescence and the action of Battle Royal demonstrates some of the ways in which the boy allows himself to be co-opted by the powerful white men of the town, adopting their own views (of him) in ways that contradict the grandfather's exhortation. 

After giving a popular speech at his graduation, the narrator is invited to give the speech in front of "the town's big shots" and upon accepting the invitation is told that he will be included in a battle royal with other African American boys at the event. The other boys resent the narrator for several reasons but they all share in his shame, outrage and embarrassment when they are made to watch a woman dance nude in front of the crowd of men. 

The boys are then blindfolded and fight an ineffective but prolonged fight against one another, each boy for himself. At the end of the group fight, the narrator is not quick enough in his thinking to escape the ring and so is forced to fight the biggest boy, Tatlock.

Denying the narrator's offers of money if he were to throw the fight, Tatlock knocks the narrator down and wins the fight. Next the boys are tricked into scratching and scraping for money on a electrified rug in a moment of crude debasement. (While the previous actions of the men at the event have been quite cruel and crude, this may be the most humiliating and debasing part of the evening as the boys are sometimes pushed onto the mat and shocked.)

When the boys are paid, the narrator is finally asked to give his speech, which the men appear not to pay any attention to. He is ridiculed whenever he uses multi-syllabic terms, which leads him at one point to blurt out the phrase "social equality" instead of "social responsibility." This mis-speech silences the men for a while, but is soon remedied when one of the men makes sure that the narrator had not intended to say "social equality." 

"Well, you had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you've got to know your place at all times."

This statement of position resonates with the final scene in the story wherein the narrator dreams of his grandfather mocking the prize given to the narrator for his speech. Imagining his grandfather telling him to open his new briefcase just as the white men had done, the narrator finds envelope after envelope and is told to keep opening them. 

The grandfather then bursts out laughing after he tells his grandson to read a final note that suggests the whole purpose of the accolades given to the boy are meant to keep him running his whole life. 

By opening and closing the story with references to the grandfather who has advocated a high degree of self-consciousness in relation to Caucasians, Ellison presents a narrative that features irony at its core as the narrator is only vaguely capable of understanding his grandfather's message and is only fleetingly aware of how his own identity is being defined by the views of the men at the event who see him as an inferior being.  

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