Battle Royal

Published in 1947, "Battle Royal" is a short story written by African American writer Ralph Ellison about a young Black man's struggle to form his identity in a white man's world. It would later become the first chapter in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). Keep reading for a summary and analysis of Battle Royale.

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Table of contents

    "Battle Royal": Ralph Ellison

    On March 1, 1917, Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison's father shared literature with him. His mother would bring back books from her job cleaning houses. The Ellisons resided in a large rooming house owned by J.D. Randolph. Affectionately called grandpa by Ellison, Randolph was fond of books and telling stories. Ralph Ellison loved to read but would not consider writing well into his adulthood.

    Ellison studied music in grade school. He was admitted to the historically Black Tuskegee Institute as a trumpet player in the orchestra. Working several odd jobs to support himself, Ellison became acutely aware of class consciousness in his college years. Tuskegee faculty and students made clear distinctions between themselves and poorer students. Classism would become a recurring theme in his writing.

    It wasn't until Ellison moved to New York City that he began writing. He met Richard Wright and wrote for papers and magazines. After meeting Langston Hughes, he began to write book reviews, essays, and short stories. The first chapter of Invisible Man was published as a standalone short story titled "Battle Royal."

    "Battle Royal": Summary

    The story opens with an unnamed narrator speaking in the first person. He reflects on his dying grandfather's last words. He was uncharacteristically vocal on his deathbed, exclaiming he was a traitor and spy. The rest of the family is dismissive and believes he's gone crazy. However, the narrator feels puzzled and cursed by his grandfather's dying words.

    Just eighty-five years ago, the unnamed narrator's grandparents were slaves. He's no longer ashamed of this fact. Rather, he feels shame for ever having felt ashamed of his family history. The narrator is well-liked by white people, and he believes that humility and good conduct are key. After giving a well-praised speech, he is invited by the school's superintendent to deliver it again in front of the town's leading white citizens.

    Once he arrives, he realizes there is already a formal social gathering of the white men in progress, and there will be a "battle royal" before his speech. He and nine other young Black men are crowded into an elevator after changing their clothes. He feels no camaraderie with them. They don't like him because his participation took away their friend's chance to make money. They are given boxing gloves and enter the town ballroom while the white men eat, smoke, and drink extravagantly.

    Battle Royal, portrait of Ralph Ellison, StudySmarterFig. 1 - While many elements in "Battle Royal" are inspired by Ellison's life, it is not an autobiography.

    The young Black men are summoned and pushed into a circle around a naked blond woman. They are scared and confused. She begins to dance sensually to a clarinet. The drunk men start to grab at her while she tries to evade their touches gracefully. She's whisked above their heads and carried away until two men, more sober than the rest, help her escape.

    The narrator and the nine others are ushered into a boxing ring. Then they are all blindfolded and instructed to fight each other all at once until only one is left standing. After a moment of hesitation, all the fighters blindly descend upon each other. On the sidelines, the drunk men holler, cheer, and yell, some aggressive and threatening with racial obscenities. The narrator is repeatedly hit and knocked down. After countless hits, he realizes he can vaguely see shadows and shapes through the white blindfold. He tries to hide his increased clarity by stumbling around while evading more hits. He turns around to discover it's him and one other fighter, one of the biggest, left. The rest have somehow managed to communicate a group retreat out of the ring.

    The narrator and the last man, Tatlock, face off. They box each other while the narrator offers to give him his prize money if Tatlock concedes with a fake knockout. Tatlock declines. After more boxing, he knocks down the narrator.

    The narrator and Tatlock join the rest of the men in front of a rug covered with the prize money and coins. Unbeknownst to them, it's electrified. While they all dive for money, some trip and fall, others roll, while the rest try to grab money without getting shocked. They are all already severely beaten and bleeding from the fight, which intensifies the brutality of the experience.

    Battle Royal, ballroom photo, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The young Black men fight in a boxing ring set up in a ballroom.

    Once they get dressed, the ballroom staff hand the participants five dollars a piece, with Tatlock receiving ten. The narrator is about to leave with the rest but is called back to give his speech. He struggles to recite the memorized speech, feeling nauseous, still sweating and bleeding, occasionally swallowing blood and mispronouncing words. When he accidentally says "social equality" instead of "social responsibility," the uproarious mood of the room changes to threatening and angry. He corrects himself, and one of the men reminds him that he should always know his place and behave accordingly.

    The narrator finishes the speech among the rowdy white men. The superintendent praises the narrator, calling him a model for leading "his people," and awards him with a locally handmade suitcase containing a scholarship to the state Black college. Overjoyed, he heads home and is congratulated by friends and family.

    The story ends with the narrator reflecting on his dream the night after the battle royal. He's with his grandfather at a circus performance, who refuses to laugh at the clowns. The narrator receives a message in a white envelope stating, "To Whom It May Concern… Keep This [Black] Boy Running." He wakes up hearing his grandfather's laughter.1

    "Battle Royal": Characters

    There are five principal characters in "Battle Royal."

    The Unnamed Narrator

    A Black man who has mixed feelings about how white people perceive and treat him.

    The Narrator's Grandfather

    A former slave, who, usually quiet, exclaims he's been a spy and traitor, perplexing his family. He leaves a strong impression on the narrator.

    The Superintendent

    The leading official of the school the narrator just graduated from.

    The Magnificent Blonde Naked Woman

    A dancer brought in to entertain the white men. The narrator empathizes with her vulnerability and objectification.

    Tatlock

    The winner of the battle royal who refuses to concede defeat after the narrator tries to offer him his prize money to fake a knockout.

    "Battle Royal": Analysis

    There are three major themes in "Battle Royal."

    Racial Identity

    The narrator feels divided about his rapport with white people. They praise him and tell him he will become a leader of the Black community. Yet he feels that there's an unspoken reservation from white people about his standing within the community. At times, he feels guilty for his praise. He suspects that there is something disingenuous, almost condescending, in his special treatment from white people.

    The Power of the White Gaze

    The watchful eyes of the white community leaders pressure the young Black men to comply with their wishes. Very little force at first is used to order around the fighters. Only once they are deliriously beaten and the white men have become drunk do they encounter more violent exchanges. It's their presence and their gaze that strikes fear into the young Black men.

    Classism and Racism

    The battle royal is a regular event with Black men who do it to make money. The narrator feels no affinity with them and mentions feeling superior. The other men don't like him because he took the place of one of their friends and effectively "put him out of work." This tells the reader that these Black men are poorer than the narrator. The narrator communicates that he's had a middle-class upbringing with his education and the manner in which he comports himself.

    The rest of the men are more experienced; at first, they all manage to single out the narrator despite being blindfolded. Tatlock also expresses disdain for the narrator, refusing to take his money and taking pride in being able to defeat him. While the white men recognize the narrator as different and exceptional, he is reminded literally and figuratively of his place as a Black man in a white man's world. He is made equal with the poor Black men by being thrown into the battle royal. His economic class is essentially stripped from him by being dressed and blindfolded for a fight the same as the others.

    "Battle Royal": Symbolism

    There are three symbols in "Battle Royal."

    The Naked Dancer

    The narrator can empathize with her while they are both objects under the white male gaze. At the same time, he recognizes her vulnerability as a woman despite her whiteness as she barely escapes the clutches of the drunk and lecherous white men.

    The Battle Royal

    Essentially, the battle royal is a stand-in for the African American experience. The Black men are pitted against themselves to fight for meager scraps from the white men.

    The Briefcase

    The suitcase prize the narrator wins feeds into his sense of superiority over the other Black men. He also feels superior to the white men but understands he can't express it without fear of consequence. His grandfather laughs at him in the dream; though the narrator prides himself on his accomplishments, he's just a tool for white people to perpetuate the secondary status of Black people.

    Battle Royal, leather briefcase, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The unnamed narrator receives a handmade briefcase enclosed with a scholarship.

    "Battle Royal": Quotes

    Below are key quotes from "Battle Royal."

    I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer."

    -The Narrator

    The narrator seeks validation from others. He values the praise given to him from his Black community but also from the white citizens. The story is about him reflecting twenty years later to realize that his quest for self-discovery fell on his shoulders. No one else but himself could do the hard work.

    I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country…Live with your head in the lion's mouth."

    -Grandfather

    The narrator feels cursed by these words from his grandfather. The grandfather is revealing his guilt about his compliant behavior with white people. The battle royal represents the struggle that Black people experience living in a racist society with white people at the top. His grandfather calls it a war; if it is, he must be a traitor for not fighting the white people. The narrator is feeling the same guilt, yet he hasn't quite processed it on the level that his grandfather has. These dying words implant themselves in the narrator and start the seed of awareness of his own complicity.

    "Well, you had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you've got to know your place at all times."

    -The Superintendent

    The narrator is trying to give his speech while the white men continue their drunken debauchery. This makes the narrator feel invisible, and he endeavors to speak louder and more passionately, only to fumble from his bleeding mouth. Asking him to speak slowly only reinforces his invisibility. He's exhausted and beat up from the fight, but no one acknowledges it. This moment serves to remind the narrator of his disadvantage as he tries to maintain his dignity in front of the callousness of the white men.

    "Battle Royal" - Key takeaways

    • "Battle Royal" is a short story by Ralph Ellison.
    • Ellison's writing is generally concerned with Black identity
    • "Battle Royal" follows the story of a young Black man learning to understand his identity in a white society
    • It explores racial identity, the power of the white gaze, racism, and classism
    • Three symbols are the battle royal, the dancer, and the suitcase

    1. Ellison, Ralph. "Battle Royal" (1947).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Battle Royal

    What is "Battle Royal" about?

    “Battle Royal” is a short story about a young Black man’s struggle to form his identity in a white world.

    When was "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison written?

    “Battle Royal” was written in 1947.

    What is the "Battle Royal" in Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal"?

    In Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”, the battle royal is a free-for-all blind boxing match where young Black men are paid to fight each other for the viewing pleasure of well-to-do white men.

    Is "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison an autobiography?

    “Battle Royal” is inspired by events in Ralph Ellison’s life, but it is not an autobiography.

    When did Ralph Ellison write "Battle Royal"?

    Ralph Ellison wrote “Battle Royal” in 1947.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was "Battle Royal" published?

    "Battle Royal" author Ralph Ellison began writing fiction in

    Just eighty-five years ago, the unnamed narrator’s grandparents were

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