Battle Royal Study Guide
Introduction to Battle Royal
"Battle Royal" is the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man. Powerful enough to stand on its own as a short story, the chapter was published in 1947, nearly five years before the publication of Invisible Man. “Battle Royal” is set in the Deep South in the late 1920s or early 1930s. It begins as the narrator remembers his grandfather’s deathbed advice about fighting racism: "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 narrator takes this advice to heart without truly understanding what it means, eventually coming to regard his grandfather’s words as a curse. As he grows up, he feels guilty and unsure of his acceptance by white people, despite being “considered an example of desirable conduct . . . by the most lily-white men in town.”
The day after he graduates from high school, the narrator is invited to give his graduation speech before a group of wealthy white men at a hotel. There, he and nine other Black students are forced to fight each other in a blindfolded boxing match and to retrieve their prize money, a set of worthless tokens, from an electrified rug. After finally delivering his speech to the assembled men, the narrator is awarded a scholarship to a Black college. That night, however, he dreams of his grandfather and of reading a note with the ominous message "Keep this Nigger-Boy Running."
A Brief Biography of Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison (1913–1994) was an American writer who is most famous for his novel Invisible Man (1952), which embodies the dilemma of being Black in the United States with the line “I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me.” Along with racial prejudice, Ellison experienced emotional and financial hardships in his young life, including the death of his father. Despite these difficulties, Ellison had an unstoppable passion for the arts. He began his career as a trumpet player at the Tuskegee Institute, but finding it too conservative for his unconventional jazz leanings, Ellison moved to New York to pursue a career as a visual artist. A happenstance meeting with the poet Langston Hughes and the novelist Richard Wright changed his artistic direction once again. In 1936, he joined the Federal Writers’ Project and found his true calling. Ellison died in 1994, leaving a legacy of innovative writing that still stirs passions.