A Look at Symbolism in Ralph Ellison's Short Story Battle Royal

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A Look At Symbolism in Ralph Ellison’s Short Story Battle Royal

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Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison is about the passing of the narrator’s grandfather who leaves a piece of advice for the remaining members of the family. The son, then, goes through a battle where he struggles to find the true meaning of the advice given to him. The symbols in “Battle Royal” are the battle, the blind fold, and the speech. These symbols, taken all together, highlight the fact that black men felt invisible.

The narrator, who thought he was simply going to read his speech, was forced into a planned battle. The battle had white drunken men surrounding it. The battle symbolized control the whites had over the blacks. The boys who were forced into the battle felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave but couldn’t if they tried. “But as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told” (Ellison 406). This proves that the battle was in place to control the boys and how they chose to move. The battle is also a representation of how white people are superior/in control, by giving the narrator a scholarship to an all-black college, as this will be further explained later.

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In the beginning of the battle, the boys were blind folded. The blind folds were in place to make the boys feel weak, and to prevent them from seeing who their opponents were and what moves they made. “Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man” (Ellison 407). Being blindfolded means you can’t see what’s going on around you. In other words, you can’t defend yourself properly and your opponent has a greater advantage of winning. Being blindfolded will make one feel weak or having less of the advantage of one who doesn’t have on a blindfold.

Throughout the battle, the narrator keeps thinking about his speech, “And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me?”(Ellison 407). The narrator wonder what he will receive, such as a gift or a recognition of some kind. After the battle was over, he finally read his speech, “I spoke even louder in spite of the pain. But still they talked and still they laughed, as though deaf with cotton in dirty ears. So I spoke with greater emotional emphasis. I closed my ears and swallowed blood until I was nauseated. The speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word. All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered, rendered” (Ellison 411). The narrator is so determined and eager, he reads his speech despite the fight he had to go through. He holds back showing the physical pain he felt to avoiding showing additional weakness. So, the speech symbolizes how smart he is and how he want everyone to acknowledge the problems during that time period.

After giving his speech, he did indeed receive recognition and a gift. “Gentlemen, you see that I did not overpraise this boy. He makes a good speech and some day he’ll lead his people in the proper paths, and I don’t have to tell you that that is important in these days and times. This is a good, smart boy and so to encourage him in the right direction, in the name of the Board of Education I wish to present him a prize in the form of this…”(Ellison 412). The response to his speech was demeaning. The presenter made it seem like the narrator is moving up to their level (the level where the whites were) but in reality he was keeping him where he is, in a sense keeping him running. The prize was a scholarship to a Negro college where, we can assume the teachers or professors only teaches what they want the African American students to know. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll gain the tools needed to reach the same level of the white men. Black men feeling invisible in this specific time comes from the fact that they were only allowed to attend schools with other African American students and taught by African American teachers who only teach what they were instructed to. This structure held African Americans back, not allowing them to be equal to the white students, meaning that whatever they wanted to contribute didn’t matter.

These three symbols; the battle, being blindfolded and the speech, all lead to black men to feel invisible. Black men put so much effort into something they’re proud of, go out of their way to present it, only to be brushed off in the form of a slight recognition. The narrator’s grandfather left a significant piece of advice in the beginning; “learn it to the younguns” (Ellison 403). He also called himself a traitor and a spy. Then near the end, in the narrator’s dream, he reads a letter from his grandfather that reads “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (Ellison 413). When the grandfather said “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” it was a sign that he was mocking the prize the narrator received. The grandfather is a representation of someone who is of the same race and will down his own people.

In conclusion, controlling a person, making a person feel weak and giving false recognition contributes to making one feel invisible. One race isn’t a sign of being higher than another. Once you realize that you aren’t free because of what you’re allowing others to teach you instead of teaching yourself what you need to know, will be the day you become equal to yourself and those who are now doing the same as you. “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: that I am nobody but myself”(Ellison 402).

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