What is the symbolism of the stripper in "Battle Royal"?Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Ralph Ellison's first chapter of his novel, Invisible Man, the "Battle Royal" creates a vivid portrayal of the inequities between whites and blacks.  Ellison's character is invited to give his graduation address at a hotel; however, when he arrives, he is asked to join a group of men who are issued boxing gloves and "fighting togs."  The are ushered into a large, mirrored hall to fight for the amusement of some of the important men in the town. 

Ellison's nameless narrator states that there is a dead silence as the young men notice facing them, a "magnificent blonde--stark naked."  Fearing that they be accused of looking at her, many lower their heads.  The narrator feels guilt and fear as his teeth chatter.  The stripper, who has an American flag tattooed low upon her belly stares at the narrator with "impersonal eyes."  Symbolically, Louis Althusser contends that the flag represents an iconic image, exerting power over the males who see the stripper's tattoo. seeming to address each one individually. The narrator states that the stripper seems to stare at him with "impersonal eyes." The stripper is free to look without fear at the black men as "Old Glory" reminds them.  So, even in her being the object of exploitation herself--the flag often represents the sacrificed body.  As such, no one attains the satisfaction of touching her.

bmadnick eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The purpose of the naked white dancer is to demonstrate white society's control over African Americans. Historically, black men had been persecuted for even looking at a white woman, so the white men of the narrator's society are telling him that social equality will never be a realization for him. The white woman represents forbidden freedom, "stripping" the narrator of his decency and innocence. By taunting them with the woman, the white spectators put the young man in a no-win situation. If he doesn't look, he must not be a man; if he looks, he is just another black man desiring what he cannot have. The white spectators are essentially saying that if black men do not fight for equality, then they are cowards. If they do fight for equality, it will be denied to them.

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Battle Royal

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