Battle Royal Themes
Manifestations of Power Through Observation
The ability to derive power through viewership is a complex theme in the story. The physical orientation of the boxing ring within the ballroom is an important component in understanding the power dynamics at work. Surrounded on three sides by rows of chairs, the boxing ring becomes a makeshift arena. The white men have power in their position as an audience. The lawless and unpredictable nature of the fight and the unidirectional viewing dynamic between the men and the blindfolded students creates opportunities for the white men to manipulate the black students at will.
As the woman dances before the assembly, all of the boys, including the narrator, are pinned under the men’s collective gaze—and are very distressed by the duality of seeing and being seen.
A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around us… I tried to back away, but they were behind me and around me. Some of the boys stood with lowered heads, trembling. I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself.
As the students uncomfortably watch the woman dance in front of them, the white audience shouts conflicting commands: some threaten the boys for looking at the woman; others berate them for looking away. The boys must struggle to process the erotic figure in front of them and then to perform for the enjoyment of the room. In both cases the presence of an audience, specifically an audience with explicit social power over the boys, strips them of their agency.
The dancing woman’s situation is similar to that of the boys. Her position between the audience and the group of students creates a complex dynamic that positions her as an object of admiration and desire and also traps her in a frightening and potentially dangerous situation. She seems more experienced in this dynamic than the boys are, as she knows to continue smiling and performing even as her safety becomes threatened—something the narrator is unable to do.
Intraracial Notions of Superiority
Racism is a topic central to Invisible Man, and “Battle Royal” deals specifically with the complex issue of internalized racism as it affects the narrator’s relationship to other black characters in the story.
Even before the battle royal begins, the narrator feels superior to the black students he is to fight. He sees them as “tough guys” with no interest in anything intellectual and doesn’t like being crowded together with them in the service elevator. He is concerned that participating in the fight “might detract from the dignity of [his] speech,” so it can be inferred that he sees the fight’s voluntary participants as undignified.
At the end of the battle royal, the other boys arrange to leave the ring and for the narrator to finish the fight against the biggest of the group: Tatlock.
I whispered, “Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.”
“I’ll break your behind,” he whispered hoarsely.
“For me, sonafabitch!”
Ironically, the narrator’s desire to win is driven by his desire to give his speech and gain the approval of the white audience. He questions Tatlock’s motives but is unable to similarly interrogate his own. Tatlock is able to overcome him precisely as he struggles to align his course of action with the wants of an audience member:
Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance?
The greater irony of the situation is that in the narrator’s compliance with white society, he perpetuates disdain for those of his race who behave unlike him; and yet he fails to actually attain the respect of the white audience.
A Complicated Sense of Identity
The narrator begins the story by describing his lifelong struggle to define his own identity. He explains that in the process of...
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