Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748
"Battle Royal" is the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and is told from a first-person narrative point of view. The first-person narrator presents thoughts and emotional details from various points in time, past and present. It is important to remember that first-person narrative is very subjective and that narrated memories might not be completely factual. They are true to how the narrator remembers them and are specific to the narrator’s experience alone. As a result, readers experience the battle royal intimately through the eyes of one of its participants.
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Pacing and Tempo
Given Ellison’s background as a jazz musician and critic, it is interesting to notice how the tempo of his prose moves in different and sudden directions with the unpredictability of an improvised jazz number. When the narrator is kicked onto the electric rug, the moment of time lengthens to detail his thoughts as he is shocked:
The chair leg flew out of my hand and I felt myself going and rolled. It was as though I had rolled through a bed of hot coals. It seemed a whole century would pass before I would roll free, a century in which I was seared through the deepest levels of my body to the fearful breath within me and the breath seared and heated to the point of explosion. It'll all be over in a flash, I thought as I rolled clear. It'll all be over in a flash.
Amid the rapid sequence of events in the room, the repetition in the narrator’s interjected thoughts create a syncopated effect in the rhythm of the story. This technique of breaking up the story’s narrative emphasizes points of the narrative or the narrator’s experience that the reader might not expect—just as the downbeat might be emphasized in improvised jazz.
Symbolism can be found throughout “Battle Royal.” For example, the flag tattooed on the dancing woman’s belly can be seen as representative of how the United States may have appeared to Ellison as a black man during the first half of the twentieth century: an alluring offer, but one that was dangerous to try to attain. Secondarily, the flag—moving with the dancing woman as a real flag waves on a pole—highlights how racism has been ingrained into the nation on a systemic level.
The battle royal itself can be read as a reflection of the intra-racial conflicts imposed by the white townsmen. Blindfolded, the students inflict pain upon each other in the same way the event is set up to inflict pain on the black students present. The scene with the electric rug scene mirrors the nature of the entire event as a bait and switch—the “gold coins” the narrator scrambles to reach are actually brass, and the respect he believes he will get for his speech was never truly on offer.
Even during the narrator’s speech—what was supposed to be his moment of strength—his injuries from the fight cause him to choke, and his words lose the power he intended them to have. In order to speak his message of humility and compliance, he must swallow his own blood, a reminder of the violence and pain he has endured and the damaging nature of his own false rhetoric. The failure of his words provides yet another opportunity for the white men to remind the narrator that he’s “got to know [his] place at all times.” The “gleaming calfskin” of the briefcase the narrator is given reinforces the casual treatment of flesh by the white men, and as the narrator accepts the award, “a rope of bloody saliva . . . drool[s] upon the leather.” Though the gift seems superficially supportive of the narrator’s dreams, it was given as an afterthought to the battle royal and is tainted by that same legacy of violence.
In the story’s final scene, the narrator’s dream highlights his misinterpretation of his grandfather’s advice. When he naively adopted his grandfather’s meekness, it was his own self he betrayed by neglecting to integrate any resistance. The series of envelopes that his grandfather calls years presumably represent years the narrator will spend chasing a promised goal that is never delivered. The message in the final envelope is issued by the state—white authority—and reveals to the narrator that they have him on a line, chasing something they will never give him: complete acceptance by white culture.