Ralph Ellison's short story, ‘‘Battle Royal,’’ first published in 1947, describes an extremely disturbing event, organized by the local elite white men of a Southern town. This event involves the abuse and humiliation of several young black men for the purpose of entertaining a gathering of these prominent and outwardly respectable white men. The narrator of the story, a recent high school graduate, has been invited to repeat a much-celebrated speech he gave at his graduation, in which he emphasizes the importance of "humility'' among African Americans. Instead, however, he is grouped with several of the toughest young black men from his high school, and forced to participate in a series of bizarre and grotesque activities as a form of entertainment for the white men. These young men are first forced into the frighteningly uncomfortable situation of being exposed to a beautiful, blonde white woman, who stands completely naked in the middle of the room, as the white men look on. This is an especially intimidating situation for these young African-American men, because they have been strictly taught by a racist Southern culture not to regard white women in a sexual way. The young men are then blindfolded and forced to fight one another in a bloody brawl. Finally, they are forced to scramble for loose change and dollar bills on a rug which has been charged with electricity, subjecting them to painful electric shocks at each point of contact. Only after being subjected to these cruel and horrible activities is the narrator allowed to give his speech. During the speech, however, he is made a laughingstock by the white men, after which he is presented with a leather briefcase containing a scholarship to the state Negro college. Throughout this narrative, Ellison makes use of figurative language to describe this disturbing experience. The following essay discusses the effectiveness of Ellison's use of figurative language in this story, focusing particularly on the recurring motifs of war, circus, and animal imagery.
The central figurative motif of Ellison's story is that of war. Racial relations between black and white in the
United States are represented as a state of warfare. This war motif is most strongly asserted through the dying words of the narrator's grandfather, who tells his son that "after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight.
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 ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction.’’ Racial relations in the United States, even after the end of the Civil War, and the era of Reconstruction, are described by the grandfather as an ongoing "war,'' and the struggle of African Americans to gain equality is referred to as ‘‘the good fight.’’ The grandfather describes himself as a "traitor" to white people; he was ‘‘a spy in the enemy's country’’ in that he posed among white people (‘‘the enemy's country’’) as the type of humble, subservient black man they wanted him to be, while secretly harboring rebellious ideas. The narrator admits that "I could never be quite sure of what he meant,'' but he nevertheless feels cursed by the statement. The narrator is particularly disturbed by his grandfather's description of himself as secretly a "traitor" to white people, although outwardly conforming to their wishes.
The story's title, ‘‘Battle Royal,’’ suggests that the incidents described in the narrative are just one battle in this ongoing racial war. This battle, however, is not fought between black and white, but among the group of black "schoolmates." The narrator explains that ‘‘the battle royal was to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment.'' They are forced to blindly fight one another in a brutal fistfight, and then to fight one another again in the scramble for money on the electrified rug. This ‘‘battle royal’’ symbolizes the ways in which white society forces African Americans to fight amongst themselves, defeating one another, in a scramble for the limited resources provided them by white society. Instead of banding together to protest their racist treatment by the white men, the young black men find themselves turning against each other for the prize money, and then for the loose change on the rug. The figurative language of
Ellison's story is further characterized by the recurring motif of comparing the experience to a circus. The circus imagery is significant to the story in several ways. A circus is a grandiose spectacle presented for the sole purpose of entertaining masses of people. A circus is also characterized by a variety of acts and events designed to arouse the awe and fascination of the crowds. The young African-American men in the story are forced to participate in a variety of events designed for the sole purpose of entertaining the crowd of white men who fill the hall.
In addition to circus imagery, Ellison's story includes the recurring motif of animal imagery. Sometimes the animal imagery is part of the circus imagery, a circus being characterized by various animal shows, such as lions, dogs, and seals. On one hand, the animal imagery implies that the treatment of African Americans by whites is animalistic and inhumane. On the other hand, the animal imagery in the story reinforces the message that the white men treat the African-American men as if they are no better than animals. Further, the circus animal imagery indicates that these young African-American men are being treated as trained animals—they are being taught by white society how to "perform, ’’so to speak, for the entertainment and edification of white people. In the end of the story, the narrator realizes that, even his success as a high school student, and subsequent award of a scholarship to college, is simply further training for him to serve a role of subservience for the "entertainment" of white people. The first mention of circus animal imagery in the story is uttered by the narrator's dying grandfather. After describing the lives of African Americans as a "war,'' he goes on to assert his method of dealing with white society in terms which compare it to a lion tamer sticking his head into the mouth of a lion: ‘‘Live with your head in the lion's mouth.’’ The narrator's grandfather thus describes white society as a circus lion, a vicious beast in the presence of whom one is always in danger of being swallowed. Further, the grandfather's advice to ‘‘live with your head in the lion's mouth’’ implies that black people are at their best advantage symbolically "taming" the beast of white racist society by outwardly placating white people, while inwardly undermining their power. ‘‘I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust open.’’ The grandfather's advice is to be so outwardly agreeable to white people, ‘‘let 'em swoller you,’’ as to undermine white society from within by giving it what it thinks it wants,"till they vomit or bust open.’’
White society is described at several other points in the story, using figurative language which refers to animals. This imagery conveys the implication that the white men's treatment of the black men is animalistic and inhumane. As part of the circus motif, as mentioned above, white society is described as a circus lion. At the banquet hall, the white men, ‘‘all of the town's big shots,’’ who attend the event, are described as voracious wolves, ‘‘who were there in their tuxedos, wolfing down the buffet foods, drinking beer and whisky and smoking black cigars.’’ The image of white men as wolves indicates both their greed in exploiting black people and the vicious nature of their ardent racism. A wolf is a predator, and the racist white society preys upon the disempowered black community like a pack of wolves. The association of the white men with "howling" wolves is evoked later in the story, when the narrator is punched during a fistfight and, as he reels, sees the crowd of white men as, ‘‘howling red faces crouching tense beneath the cloud of blue-gray smoke.’’ The white men in the crowd are later described as deadly snakes, animals almost always associated with evil, particularly by way of reference to the serpent in the Bible. After the narrator is blindfolded, and before he is forced to fight his fellow classmates, he explains that"I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness, it was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths.’’ This reference to the "cottonmouth" snake is also appropriate because the mention of "cotton" recalls the use of black slaves in the South to pick cotton for white plantation owners. Although the story is written long after the abolition of slavery, the association suggests that even in the mid-twentieth century, white society's treatment of African Americans is little better than that of slave masters. Later in the story, when the young black men are forced to scramble for change on an electrified rug, one of the white menis heard to yell out, "like a bass-voiced parrot.’’ Parrots are known for their ability to mindlessly mimic the words of human beings, without any comprehension of the meaning or significance of what they are saying. This image implies that the crowd of white men, shouting at the young black men, are no better than parrots, mindlessly repeating the racist words and deeds perpetuated by white society, without any thought or consideration.
The circus imagery continues with the description of the naked white woman in the middle of the room as having hair that is "yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask.’’ Here, the white woman is seen as occupying a similar social station to that of the young black men; like them, she is not treated as a human being, but as an inanimate object, a "doll," brought in as a toy or plaything, part of the circus-like entertainment for the enjoyment of the white men. Although the narrator ultimately seems to be sympathetic to the white woman, he also describes her in terms of animal imagery. He describes her eyes as "hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon's butt.’’ This is certainly an odd descriptive image. However, the as sociation of the naked white women with ‘‘a baboon's butt’’ suggests both disgust and disdain. She is later described more sympathetically as a "bird girl,’’ when the narrator states that, "She seemed like a fair bird-girl in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea.’’ This image suggests that the narrator sees the woman as delicate, and vulnerable, indicating his feelings of sympathy for her, as she is also being humiliated and exploited by the roomful of white men, who appear intimidating as ‘‘some gray and threatening sea.'' One of the white men lasciviously ogling the naked white woman is described as an animal, "his posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda.’’ This "creature" demonstrates the quality of the racist white men as no better than animals in their regard for, and treatment of, the white woman, as well as of the black men.
While the white men are described in terms of animals associated with viciousness, evil, and predatory behavior, the young black men are described as animals evoking very different associations. As they are forced to fistfight one another while blindfolded, the narrator describes the young African-American men as defenseless "crabs," doing their utmost to "protect" their vulnerable ‘‘midsections’’: "The boys groped about like blind, cautious crabs crouching to protect their midsections, their heads pulled in short against their shoulders, their arms stretched nervously before them.’’ This description goes on to associate the young men with even more defenseless, "hypersensitive" creatures, ‘‘their fists testing the smoke-filled air like the knobbed feelers of hypersensitive snails.’’ The narrator later associates himself with an animal, one that is delicate, vulnerable, and beautiful: a butterfly. As he lies knocked to the floor, he watches "a dark red spot of my own blood shaping itself into a butterfly, glistening and soaking into the soiled gray world of the canvas.''
Even in the moment of utter pain, humiliation, and defeat, the narrator maintains the sense of self-worth to envision himself as something beautiful. Further, butterflies are associated with change and rebirth, as the beautiful butterfly emerges from the plain cocoon. In some ways, this experience is a sort of "rebirth" for the narrator, as he gains a deeper, albeit more troubling, perspective on the nature of racism, and his own position in a white, racist society. When, in the next round of events, the young black men are forced to scramble for money on a rug charged with electricity, the narrator describes himself as a rat, when he describes the experience of being electrocuted on the rug: " A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat.'' Rats are generally considered among the lowest and most disdainfully regarded of creatures; the narrator here expresses the sentiment that white racist society looks down on African Americans as no better, and deserving no better treatment, than rats. Further, rats are scavengers, who survive by scrambling for whatever food they can find. Similarly, the young black men are made to scramble for the money on the rug, as if African Americans were given no dignified means of supporting themselves within the structure of white society.
Similarly to being treated like trained animals, the young black men are treated like "circus clowns,'' forced to makes fools of themselves for the entertainment of the white crowd. As the forced fistfight continues, the narrator finds himself one of two men left fighting. He attempts several times to work together with his fellow classmate in fooling the white men while avoiding actually hurting each other. But the other man is too caught up in the desire to win to appreciate this effort. The narrator then describes him as a ‘‘stupid clown’’ whom he felt was ruining his chances of making a positive impression on the white men. The young black men are further described as trained animals displayed for the purpose of entertaining the white crowd, as at a circus, when the narrator describes one of them ‘‘lifted into the air, glistening with sweat like a circus seal, and dropped, his wet back landing flush upon the charged rug.’’ This description continues with further animal
imagery, as the narrator describes seeing the young man, "literally dance upon his back, his elbows beating a frenzied tattoo upon the floor, his muscles twitching like the flesh of a horse stung by many flies.’’ Here, the young black man is described as a horse, a beast of burden kept by humans to serve their own ends, just as black people have been used by white society as beasts of burden to perform grueling physical labor. The ‘‘many flies’’ which sting the horse describe the crowd of white men, the narrator implying that they are no better than flies, and perhaps dangerous only because they are "many'' in number.
The circus imagery first evoked by the grandfather's advice comes full circle with the dream described by the narrator at the end of the story. The narrator describes a dream he had the night after being forced to participate in this series of events, and then being awarded a college scholarship. He dreams that he was at a circus with his grandfather, who "refused to laugh at the clowns no matter what they did.’’ The clowns here represent African Americans, who are forced by white society to "perform'' acts of self-humiliation for the entertainment and pleasure of white people. In the dream, the narrator's grandfather refuses to laugh at the clowns, because he knows that they are his own people, forced into such acts of submission. At the end of the dream, the grandfather has given the narrator a note that implies that white society will continue to make a clown of him, and that, by association, even the college scholarship is merely another gesture by white society meant to enforce the subservience and "humility'' of black people.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001.