In Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” the narrator describes how, before the battle itself, a naked blonde white woman danced not only before him but also before the other black boys and the white men assembled in the room. After describing her attractive breasts, he comments that
I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and to murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V. I had a notion that of all in the room she saw only me with her impersonal eyes.
The tattoo of “the small American flag” on the woman’s belly can be interpreted in a number of ways, including the following:
- The tattoo reinforces the impression that she is not a woman of great social or economic status. During the time when this story was written and published, it was much less usual than it is today for women to be tattooed. (Indeed, it was much less usual then than it is today for anyone to be tattooed.) The kinds of women who were likely to be tattooed in those days were women who did not enjoy much social status or respect. In some ways, the woman who dances naked before the white men is treated with as little real respect as the black boys who are about to fight for the white men’s amusement. In that sense, the woman can be seen as a symbol of the sexism of American society at the time.
- More significantly, the American flag tattooed on the body of the alluring white woman may be interpreted as a symbol of the attractions of America itself, especially its sensual and material attractions. Ellison may be implying that such attractions are paraded before black people but that those attractions are in some respects off limits to blacks, at least in the ways that they are freely available to whites. The young black narrator feels enticed by the naked white woman, but he knows that if he ever tried to touch her, let alone have a sexual relationship with her, let alone have even a romantic relationship of any kind, he would be attacked by the surrounding whites and severely punished, if not killed. In the same way that the woman is an object of temptation that is never really available to him, so the same might be said of many of the other sensually appealing aspects of American life, such as fine clothes, a big house, an impressive car, and a generally exalted standard of living. He can view these things, but people of his race could not take for granted the equal opportunity ability to possess such things.
- The fact that the flag is tattooed right above the woman’s vagina has obviously sexual overtones. (If the tattoo had been on her arm, such symbolism would be less blatant.) Once again, the woman can be seen as a symbol of some of the sensual pleasures America dangles before young blacks even as it keeps those pleasures out of reach.
- The narrators extreme ambivalence toward the woman – his temptation both “to caress her and destroy her” – may symbolize his similar ambivalence toward America itself. America (it might be argued) provokes in him both desire and contempt, both yearning and hatred.