Battle Royal; or, The Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison

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In "Battle Royal," what did the grandfather mean by calling himself a traitor?

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The grandfather's last words are known by many literary scholars as "The Grandfather's Riddle." It seems as if there is a hidden meaning within them, something that the narrator needs to learn and utilize for the rest of his life. The narrator agonizes over this riddle, trying desperately to make it make sense. What did his grandfather mean by saying that he had been a traitor? And was he encouraging him to be a traitor as well?

His grandfather says that he had been "a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction." This is the key to understanding the word "traitor." Ellison's grandfather felt as if he had betrayed his own people by doing what he had to do to keep himself and his family alive.

The grandfather asserts that by conforming to the expectations of the enemy, he has betrayed his own people and their cause. The grandfather would seem to be saying that any new strategy must be responsible to the people: individual victory purchased at the price of group defeat is an act of perfidy. . . . (Trimmer)

Seemingly, the grandfather's opinion is that becoming a traitor and doing everything one can to fit in with what the white leaders of society want are the only ways to survive. However, he still calls this being a traitor, as it betrays his own race, as well as his own code of ethics.

Battle Royal is a part of a larger narrative, and more is learned about this "riddle" as Ellison's novel The Invisible Man progresses.

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The short story “Battle Royal” actually is the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s book The Invisible Man. There are two distinct events in the story: the last words and death of Ellison’s grandfather; and the speaking event which really is the battle royal.

Ellison’s grandparents lived through the Civil War and were freed slaves.  His grandfather initially believed that they were equal to the white man but would have to live separate but equal lives. 

About eighty-five years ago they were told they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. 

Of course, the segregation of the two races proved not to be in the favor of the black race. 

The grandfather had lived a quiet, unassuming life after being freed.   Describing his grandfather as being odd, the narrator also admits that he has been told that he [Ellison] takes after his grandparent. 

On his deathbed, the old man calls the narrator’s father in to give him his deathbed advice for life. He spoke fiercely and bitterly unlike his normal demeanor.  Portraying the life of the black people as one of warfare, the grandfather tells his son to never let down his guard.  Then, he divulges to his son how he has survived in the white man's world.  He counsels his son to agree with what the white man says and always answer with a compliant attitude. 

Admitting that he felt like traitor to himself and the black man’s cause, the dying man encourages his son to  use his ploy of  "yeses and grins" to undermine the whites until the black man is able to rise up and really be equal to the white race. The words of the old man haunt the narrator because he too succumbs to the treachery of receiving the blessings given down by the white man to him.  

Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity. It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind

Not until much later in the author’s life does he realize that his grandfather hated having to play the part that the white man imposed on him rather than being true to himself. 

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