Battle Royal Summary
“Battle Royal,” the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, is about a young Black man who participates in a staged brawl for the entertainment of rich white men.
- The narrator is invited to a party, where he is blindfolded and forced to fight other boys from his school.
- His "reward," which is placed on an electrified rug, turns out to be worthless coins.
- After the battle royal, the narrator delivers a speech about how Black men should defer to white men in all matters. He's awarded a scholarship to an African American college for this speech.
Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 998
"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:
I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country... 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. 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.”
At his high school graduation, the narrator gives a speech stating that “humility [is] the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress.” He is asked to deliver this speech again the next day “at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens.” The gathering takes place in a hotel ballroom, and the narrator discovers upon arrival that the event is a smoker, a kind of illegal and unregulated boxing match common in the early-to-mid 1900s. Nine of his Black classmates have been invited to be a part of a battle royal, a fight in which multiple people box each other until one person is left as the winner.
Though the narrator is there to give his speech, he is told that he might as well join the fight first. The audience of white men—doctors, lawyers, bankers, and even a pastor—is already quite drunk. Before the fight, the Black students are lined up and forced to watch a naked white woman dance for the room of men. The white men behave boisterously as they watch both the dancer and the Black students’ reactions of humiliation and terror. As the music continues, some of the white men start to grab at, and eventually chase, the woman, catching her and tossing her above their heads. The narrator can tell that, like him, the woman is terrified; she finally escapes with the help of some “more sober” audience members.
The narrator and his classmates try to leave but are ordered into the room’s portable boxing ring, where they are blindfolded and taunted from the sidelines. The bell rings and the boys frantically pummel each other.
My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood. A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor.
The battle royal is “complete anarchy,” but even as he fights harder, the narrator thinks about his speech: “How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me?” After some time, the other students abandon the ring one by one, leaving the narrator and the largest of the group, Tatlock, to “slug it out” for the winner’s prize. The narrator tells Tatlock he will give him the prize money if Tatlock takes a fall, but Tatlock refuses and the narrator is knocked out. As he recovers, wondering when he will be allowed to...
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give his speech, a rug is brought out with money spread all over it. The students are told to pick up the money, but when they do so they find that the rug has been electrified. The boys scramble for the money and endure debilitating shocks from the rug as the white men laugh and harass them.
The rug is eventually removed and the boys are paid for their participation in the fight. The narrator leaves with the others, disappointed that he didn’t give his speech. However, he is stopped before the “dim alley” and brought back to the ballroom to deliver the speech.
I spoke automatically and with such fervor that I did not realize that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth, filling up with blood from the cut, almost strangled me. I coughed... but a few of the men, especially the superintendent, were listening and I was afraid. So I gulped it down, blood, saliva and all, and continued... I spoke even louder in spite of the pain. But still they talked and still they laughed, as though deaf with cotton in dirty ears. So I spoke with greater emotional emphasis. I closed my ears and swallowed blood until I was nauseated.
The speech includes the phrase “social responsibility,” but because of the blood in his throat the narrator fumbles his words and says “social equality.” The white audience quickly becomes hostile; a man in the front row questions the narrator’s motives and reminds him, “not unkindly,” that he’s “got to know [his] place at all times.”
After his speech, the narrator is praised by the school superintendent and awarded a briefcase containing a scholarship to the “state college for Negroes.” He is “overjoyed.” His family and neighbors are excited at the news, and he feels he has overcome his grandfather’s “deathbed curse.”
That night, however, the narrator’s dreams are clouded with visions of his grandfather. In his dream, the narrator is at the circus with his grandfather, who watches as the narrator opens a seemingly endless succession of official-looking envelopes, each one enfolding the next. The final envelope contains a brief note: “To Whom It May Concern,” the narrator reads. “Keep this Nigger-Boy Running.” The narrator wakes from his dream with the sound of his grandfather’s laughter ringing in his ears.