Battle Royal Themes

The main themes in "Battle Royal" are power through viewership, internalized racism, and identity.

  • Power through viewership: The battle royal is set up for the consumption of white men, and their position as outside observers gives them power over the men they observe.
  • Internalized racism: The narrator has a complicated relationship with his own blackness, and he struggles to overcome his sense of superiority over the other black men he fights.
  • Identity: The narrator struggles to define himself, and he often feels torn between honoring his grandfather's missive to comply with white people and asserting his pride in his own lineage.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996

Power Through Viewership

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. 

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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.

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 Internalized Racism

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. 

Homework Help

Latest answer posted September 16, 2011, 9:11 am (UTC)

1 educator answer
I whispered, “Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.”
“I’ll break your behind,” he whispered hoarsely. 
“For them?”
“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.

Identity

The narrator begins the story by describing his lifelong struggle to define his own identity. He explains that in the process of figuring out who he is, he continually asked other people questions about himself that only he could answer. This internal conflict is a fundamental component of the story and is mirrored by the physical violence of the battle royal.

The title of Invisible Man, the novel from which “Battle Royal” is excerpted, comes from the narrator’s realization that, as a black man in the South, he appears invisible to white society and unable to be fully recognized in black society. He struggles to understand who his ancestors were and who he is in the wake of their legacy. He admits, “I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.” The narrator further explains that he has been compared to his grandfather, and because of this comparison he wrestles with his grandfather’s controversial advice to undermine white supremacy through compliance:

It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable.

External struggles taking place during the battle royal run alongside the narrator’s interior conflict. He grapples with simultaneous lust and hatred for the dancing woman, wanting both to possess her and to destroy her. Even during the humiliating subjection in the fight and on the electric rug, he still hopes to successfully deliver his speech and worries how it will be received by the crowd of white men. He is unable to make sense of what the group of men want from his speech, yet he is elated when he is rewarded with a scholarship at the end. 

My eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly off the floor. I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile.

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