Themes and Meanings
“Battle Royal” was first published as a short story in Horizon in 1947 under the title “Invisible Man.” It later became the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s only novel, Invisible Man (1952), whose title comes from a phrase at the beginning of the story: “But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!” “Battle Royal” provides a fascinating window into the creative forces that produced Invisible Man, which is recognized as one of the great American novels of our time, as well as a masterwork of the burgeoning black literature movement of the second half of the twentieth century. Grandfather episodes provide the thematic motor that drives much of the novel, which is a study of a naïve young man who is wounded by racism but unsure how to respond. He wants to be a good member of his family and community but fails to understand the poisonous effect that southern race relations have on even such simple acts as delivering a harmless graduation speech. The story makes clear just what the narrator will face in his maturity.
The battle royal episode itself introduces many of the themes with which the narrator deals later in his life in the novel. These include social Darwinism, which metaphorically encourages individuals to fight to the finish in order to receive rewards; the ways in which the black community’s strongest and wiliest members take advantage of their fellows, refusing to cooperate against the common white enemy just as Tatlock refuses to fake defeat; the corrupting influence of prizes and praise on the narrator himself; and the need for the white establishment to maintain symbolic as well as literal power over the black community. If Invisible Man defines many African American responses to racism and politics, “Battle Royal” provides a capsule version of the thematic crux of the larger work, how to respond to the cruelty of racism while retaining one’s decency and humanity.
Ellison involves the reader so deeply in the experiences of his narrator that one shares both his pain and his confusion and uncertainty. The innocence and decency of the narrator, who is simply trying to do the right thing, are so effectively conveyed that readers of all races and cultures can understand the special problems that he faces.