Reading through Ralph Ellison’s story “Battle Royal” one comes to the conclusion that if a man yields to the power of majority without struggle, he dooms himself and his posterity to infinite slavery. It’s no mere chance that the protagonist’s grandfather, laying on his deathbed, says nothing, but a wish for his sons “to keep up the good fight. (1)” At the time of the old man’s death, his words had little effect on his relatives, who were afraid of doing something “against the wishes of white folks” (1). Nevertheless the protagonist unveils the puzzle of his grandfather’s last will later in his life.
The story’s told from the first person. The author adds an element of reminiscences to the narration to show the changes in protagonist’s perceptions of reality over time. The narrator doesn’t color the story with biases or his interests; on the contrary he simply describes the events that happened upon his high school graduation, making the reader judge for himself. Thinking of old times, the protagonist recalls a fighting contest, Battle Royal, where Ellison creates a perfect setting for the readers to have an idea of a humiliating environment surrounding the fighters and their passivity and unwillingness to destroy the present state of affairs.
To underline the feeling of humbleness, humility, self-pity and fighters’ total obedience to white people, the author observes the battle attendees through protagonist’s eyes: “They were all there-bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants. Even one of the more fashionable pastors” (2). Moreover, the protagonist feels neither scorn nor disdain towards the guests, but rather submission, acceptance of his fate and “blind terror” (3). The superiority of white men is reinforced with their disparaging treatment of fighters: “Let me at that big nigger!” (3); “These niggers look like they are about to pray!” (6); “We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times” (9). The whole scenery surrounding these people is being described as if it wasn’t “the main ballroom of the leading hotel” (2), but rather a circus with both fighters and spectators pictured as wild animals, only the former represented the caged victims and the latter – free predators: “posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda” (2); “That night I dreamed I was at a circus” (10).
Passivity, blind obedience to humiliating orders and all-absorbing acceptance of one’s pathetic existence are best illustrated by the behavior of fighters towards each other. Thus before the fight the protagonist observes the inmates around with an absolute indifference, neither does he care about the coming battle at that moment, being more concerned with the speech he was praised for at the graduation ceremony: “Not from a distaste for fighting but because I didn’t care too much for the other fellows who were to take part“ (2). Being left for the final round with another fighter, the protagonist offers money to the opponent for faking the latter’s defeat, so that the former’s given a chance to say his speech in front of the superior public. He is neither concerned with his present condition, nor with money being on stake, his mind seems constantly occupied by his speech on humility as “the very essence of progress” (1), which makes him a bright student in the eyes of the men of different color: “I wanted to deliver my speech and he came at me as though he meant to beat it out of me” (5); “I wanted to de liver my speech more than anything else in the world, because I felt that only these men could judge truly my ability, and now this stupid clown was ruining my chances” (6). The speech, being present throughout the narration in the protagonist’s mind, and finally delivered in the end of the story, is yet another example of yielding to the wishes of majority. When during his speech the protagonist stumbles and incidentally says “equality” rather than “responsibility”, a man from the crowd asks him to repeat his words. The orator repeats “responsibility”, denying having said otherwise and continues his talk without paying attention to humiliating laughter around.
If only men were not passive towards each others, if only they tried to fight for the rights given by God and even if the protagonist in the story accepted having said “equality”, it could have spurred others in the community to do the same, to act and set faces against inequality much earlier rather than tolerate a belittling treatment and abuse through decades. “It seemed a whole century would pass before I would roll free, a century in which I was seared through the deepest levels of my body to the fearful breath within me and the breath seared and heated to the point of explosion” (7). If only the realization of injustice came earlier, the protagonist might still have been able to escape his grandparent haunting him with his last words. On the contrary, the ultimate acceptance of his status and inferiority to white men, made the protagonist “invisible” in the society, further undermining his people’s right for freedom.