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. The old man said “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I gave up my gun back in the Reconstruction.
Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, agree them to death and destruction, let them swallow you till they vomit or bust wide open. Learn it to the young ones” (Ellison 223). The protagonist is puzzled by what his grandfather meant, and this experience never leaves him. He grows to be a model citizen in the eyes of the white folks. The speech he gave on his graduation day was about the greatness and importance of humility, but he didn’t believe in what he said. He is invited to give the speech again in front of the town’s prominent white citizens.
The narrator’s main objective throughout the story is giving a good speech. He is constantly thinking about his speech. While blindfolded and being beaten in the fight, he is still going over it in his mind. This moment is symbolic of his innocence. He is blind to the attackers that he must fend off, and he is also blind to the racism happening around him and the dehumanizing acts that he is forced to participate in. In the fight, the main character is also concerned about winning and surviving. The sole reason this is important to the narrator is because he wants to impress the white spectators that will be the audience for his upcoming oration.
When he is fighting Tatlock and the narrator whispers to Tatlock to let him win and he’ll hand over the prize over to his opponent, it further proves that he is worried about the white men’s impression of him. His motives are not for his safety, which shows that he ignorantly still believes that the white men care about him. The scramble for money on the electric rug is a turning point in the story. He finally turns his focus away from his upcoming speech, and he is only worried about getting the gold pieces off of the rug. He loses control of his bodily functions due to the electric shocks, which turn the boys into animals.
They start clawing.