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“Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison at Featured Artists: How Are Bodies Objectified in This Story?

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Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal" is a story about blindness and realization. It's about conformity and uprising. "Battle Royal" is about wanting to please the very people who look at you as an inferior race. In this story, the narrator is moved from idealism to realism. He is awakened to a new world in which he finally sees the prejudice that exists and that is directed toward him. The story begins with the narrator reminiscing about the day his grandfather died. His grandfather delivered a speech that would haunt his young grandson for years to come.

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The young man gave his honored graduation speech and in turn is requested to give the speech again in for the town’s leading white citizens. However, this turn of events does not begin the way that he plans nor wants. When the young African American man enters the hall where he is to give his speech, he comes to find that he as well as some of his schoolmates will be participating in a series of fights called the battle royal. This battle royal of course will occur before the speech. The ten men did not care for each other, and this seemed to start the tension before the fights even began. The other men who accompanied him seemed larger and more apt to fight than he was. All the young African American man could think of was to get through this fight, and then he could give his speech. This goes to show the readers that above all else, he wants to succeed. The men are herded to the hall to watch a young Caucasian woman dance. Some of the men are told to watch and others are told not to. This reflects the power that Caucasian’s still have over African American’s so long after slavery has ended. The woman danced slowly and then began to move faster with the music as the drunken Caucasian men began to assault her and toss her as though it was a mosh-pit at a rock concert. This set the stage for a hectic night for the African American men who were about to fight. At this point, most of the stronger more able men were afraid and crying that they wanted to go home. The dance sequence seemed to put the fear into them. The men were blindfolded and told to beat each other and if they didn’t then they would be hurt. As the men stood in the fight ring with their blind folds on they could hear the voice of their school superintendent yelling racial profanities at them. Then the starting bell was rung, and “it was complete anarchy”. The ten men were fighting for their lives. All the while, the white men were shouting for them to kill each other and to beat each other. The author explores the battle in such detail, it makes you feel as though you were there, feeling every punch and fear that the men felt. This again shows the control that the white men have over the African Americans. Throughout the fighting even in the end the young African American still thought of his speech, and how these fights were not a true picture of who he was. At the end of the grueling fights he was knocked out. The men were then assembled and forced to kneel on the ground where their payment laid. They were told they could have what they could grab. The floor was electrified

However this did not stop the men from the humiliating circumstances of grabbing the coins.

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‘Battle Royal’ is a powerful and evocative story that Ellison later made the opening chapter of his novel, Invisible Man (1952) ‘Battle Royal’ was originally written in 1947 and is, therefore, set in 1927 in an unnamed state in the American South.. It is an engaging text, not only because of its content and subject matter, but also because of Ellison’s writing – especially his manipulation of point of view and his meshing of past and present. Hos perspective as narrator looking back twenty year allows him to criticize the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Sooth’s segregationalist policies – which had not changed when the story and then the novel were published. Ellison loses little figurative language, but when he does it usually is used to de-value the humans in the story, so ther are several similes comparing men to animals or to worthless inanimate objects: one of the whit men present at the Battle Royal is an “intoxicated panda” 24); the narrator feels as if he is in a room “filled with poisonous cottonmouths” (25); the boys involved in the fight are “blind, cautious crabs” (25); their fist grope around in the darkness “like the knobbed feelers of hypersensitive snails” (22); the men watching the final two are “howling” like animals in their violent excitement (25). The effect of this use of figurative language is to dehumanize all the characters, black and white, and present them as animals

This is certainly appropriate to the Battle Royal which caters for the most basic impulses human beings can have: lust (the naked white woman); greed (the frantic scrambling for cash by the African Americans); and violence (the battle itself). Another pattern if imagery is drawn from the world of warfare and international confrontation: in a way it is the basis of the story given the title ‘Battle Royal,’ but it is also apparent in the narrator’s thoughts about his grandfather’s death bed words: “traitor, “spy” and “treachery” (17) suggest the world of international espionage. As the story progresses we start to have a sense that the narrator’s younger self mis-interpreted hos grandfather’s words. He thinks he is betraying the dominant white culture which is responsible in the South for segregation and for the appallingly violent treatment of the African Americans in the Battle Royal, but by the end of the story the reader can see that his grandfather meant that to co-operate with racist white people was an act of betrayal of his own people. The narrator’s younger self is hard-working and complies with the segregationist society he lives in – he plays by the rules of white southern society and is, therefore, a “traitor” to his own race.

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In essence, the speech delivered by the narrator shows the harsh treatment that the African Americans endure from the whites. He knows that there is no equality and from the harsh reaction to his speech, it shows that attaining equality is a tall order for the African Americans. He makes a decision to speak about racial situation because he is not willing to continue living under the rules of the white man to be successful. Racism is a reality that African Americans have to go through as they try to find their identity in a society that does not recognize them. They have to make a decision to fight and be free and play by their own rules in the society.

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Ellison, Ralph. ‘Battle Royal’ (1947’. Pages 17 – 32 in Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. (1952). London: Penguin.

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