What happens in Battle Royal?

In Battle Royal, the narrator is blindfolded and thrown into a boxing ring for the amusement of a group of tuxedo-clad white men. Beaten and bloodied, he is then forced to deliver a speech about the importance of meekness and education to African Americans.

  • The narrator's grandfather gives him a piece of advice: to pretend to be meek and servile around white men so that one day he will be in a position to undermine the status quo.

  • The narrator is invited to a party where he's later blindfolded, pushed into a boxing ring,  pitted against other African American boys, and beaten to a pulp. His "reward" is placed in an electrified circle, where he collects "coins" that turn out to be brass.

  • After the battle royal, the narrator delivers a speech about the importance of education in the lives of young black man. This speech also emphasizes that black men should defer to white men in all matters. For this speech, he's awarded a scholarship to college.

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"Battle Royal" is the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The chapter begins with the narrator remembering a bit of advice that his grandfather gave him about fighting against white oppression. The advice is a bit odd because the grandfather tells him to fight by being overly nice and cooperative.

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.

The chapter then returns to the present, and readers are told that the narrator has been asked to deliver his graduation speech to a group of the community's leading white citizens. He agrees to do this, and he steps into a situation that is not at all anticipated. The event is being held at a hotel ballroom, and the leaders present are already quite drunk. The purpose of the evening was never to have the narrator give his speech. Instead, he and nine of his classmates have been invited to be a part of a boxing "battle royal" as entertainment for the white men. In addition to the battle royal, the boys are lined up, and a drunk, naked woman dances in front of the boys. It's humiliating for the boys and the woman. Both are being treated as objects for the viewing pleasure of the men, and some of the men even think it is appropriate to try grabbing the woman. The woman is terrified, but she does manage to escape.

Next comes the actual battle. The boys are blindfolded, and they begin pummeling each other. Eventually, the narrator and one other boy are left in the ring, and the narrator is knocked out. The next part of the spectacle is even more horrific. A rug is brought out with coins spread all over it. The boys scramble for the money only to find out that the entire rug has been electrified, and the boys get electrocuted as they reach for the money.

The rug was electrified. The hair bristled up on my head as I shook myself free. My muscles jumped, my nerves jangled, writhed. But I saw that this was not stopping the other boys. Laughing in fear and embarrassment, some were holding back and scooping up the coins knocked off by the painful contortions of others. The men roared above us as we struggled.

The rug is eventually removed, and the narrator tries to leave; however, he is called back and ordered to give his speech. After his speech, the narrator is given a briefcase and scholarship to the "state college for Negroes." He returns home, and everybody congratulates him, but his dreams that night are clouded with memories of his grandfather.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story consists of a frame in which the mature narrator remembers the advice that his dying grandfather gave to his son (the narrator’s father) and his remembrance of a cruel betrayal that confirms the grandfather’s advice.

The grandfather tells his son to “keep up the good fight,” to continue the black people’s war by guerrilla tactics, to be a traitor and spy in the enemy’s country as he himself has been. He tells his son: “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I...

(The entire section is 1,012 words.)