Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471
Grandfather: not an actual character, although his dying words greatly disturb the narrator
Jackson: a particularly sadistic member of the audience at the battle royal
Tatlock: a large and vicious boy whom the narrator is forced to fight during the battle royal
A brief anecdote about the narrator’s grandfather begins the chapter. Through his childhood and early adulthood, the narrator is confused by his grandfather’s “deathbed curse.” After the narrator gives his high school graduation speech on humility, he is invited to give his speech before a special audience. At this event, the narrator realizes that young men from the local black high school have been brought together for the sadistic amusement of white men.
First, a naked white woman dances in front of the high school students. The strong emotions generated by such a forbidden sight are channelled into a free-for-all boxing match. The narrator faces Tatlock, who is filled with rage. The distribution of prize money provides more torture.
Finally, the narrator makes his speech. The audience, at first not really listening, changes when the narrator says “social equality” instead of “social responsibility.” Despite this difficulty, the narrator finishes with applause and a prize. The superintendent presents him with a new briefcase, containing a scholarship to an all-black state college.
The story of the narrator’s grandfather frames the narrator’s central struggle: the line between honesty and insanity. The adults react to the grandfather’s “deathbed curse,” as the narrator sometimes calls it, by saying that the grandfather was crazy. This is hardly the only possibility. The question of whether or not many of the characters are crazy runs through the entire novel.
The fact that the whole of the narrator’s life before college is reduced to one evening suggests that the story of that evening, which he calls the battle royal, can serve as an indication of something greater. Although the characters in the first chapter do not reappear in the novel, the battle royal provides the reader with crucial insights. Similarly, though Jackson and Tatlock are flat characters, they embody important facets of home to the narrator.
The whites look at their victims as entertainment, not individuals. Tatlock represents the distortions of relationships between blacks in the presence of whites. Why does Tatlock fight so hard? Most likely because his situation with the whites makes him angry, and the narrator is the only person on whom Tatlock can vent his rage.
An intense atmosphere of malice and instability pervades the battle royal. Ellison effectively blends comedy and fantastical imagery with drama and pathos. For example, the description of the blond dancer suggests a fragile, magical being, instead of the sordid pawn that torments them. At the same time, many of the details of the battle royal are highly realistic.
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