Elements or events in a story that represents larger themes function as symbols. Symbols function as images that can stimulate the imagination of the reader in associating the image with numerous elements from lived political, social and personal reality. Study of symbols at once brings out larger significance and more immediacy to the story. Looking from this point of view, everything in Ralph Ellison’s story Royal Battle, which later became the first chapter of the novel Invisible Man, is symbolic. The story evokes some deep feelings of pity and sympathy for the protagonist. But pity and sympathy are perhaps not the appropriate lenses through which to look at the narrative. In the voice of the grandfather, the author tells this to us right at the beginning of the story. “I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swollen you till they vomit or bust wide open." The story is not about the plight of some downtrodden or marginalized character. It is going to be a story of struggle and fight back. (Frye 1973)
The story is a conundrum of symbols and it is best that we start at the end of it. At the end of the fight the protagonist requests his opponent:
"Fake like I knocked you out, you can have a prize."
"I'll break your behind," he whispered hoarsely.
"For me, sonofabitch!" (Ellison 2011)
His opponent is not his opponent. His opponent is his kind. Looking at it symbolically, his opponent is only a part of himself and that part wants to hurt him. This part does not hurt him out of obedience, which our protagonist is struggling against, but out of pure rage. The passionate part, the energetic part, the untamed part of the black person has turned against himself. The dialog represents that a black individual and perhaps all black individuals have turned against their rational selves. It eliminates the possibility of them coming together. When a person is not even fully with himself then how can he be fully (or even partially) with anybody else? And if a person and a people are not in the unity then they, in some fundamental way, are made handicapped. They cannot fight for themselves.
So the people, the black individuals in the room are like that, broken from the inside. In some, the rational part is more prevalent while others the instinctive part dominates. To such people, somewhere at the beginning of the incident, a naked blonde is shown, is paraded around. It is very humiliating for a woman, which she expresses in her response of terror and disgust sometimes when she is made to move around naked. Every individual without exception desires her. So remarkable is her presence in the filth around that even the reader ends up desiring her in a powerful way. She symbolizes all that can be desired in the civilization, in their condition, in its most naked form. They can see her, but they cannot touch her, far less get her. To clothe her and to give her respect and to keep her safe are natural possibilities that do not even arise at the horizon of imagination. She is beautiful, but she has been drastically vulgar. She is not exactly a woman. She is more an image, more a symbol, a symbol of what allures them, what keeps them going and what they will never get. (Ellison 2011)
The grandfather and his haunting words are symbolic. A meek figure all his life and he talks on his death about life being a war, fighting the good fight and living in the lion's mouth. Ralph Ellison mixes up remarkably contrasting imagery. The imminent death of the old man speaking these words brings added significance to them. A meek man is asking for a struggle and is calling himself a traitor has clear intentions. The generations to come must be angry, the old dying man understands a lot more that the youngster or the generation between the youngster and the old man does. The old man understands that they, as a community, are in oppression and that we have turned a blind eye to this oppression in order to survive. At the end of his survival, his life, the old man again sees the rage that he should have felt. And he should have put into action and that he has been a traitor that he has not done so.
Next symbol is the Negro college that the young man gets a scholarship to study. The story (or a chapter) concludes with
"To Whom It May Concern," I intoned. "Keep This Nigger-Boy ," – (Ellison 2011)
After the severe humiliation at the fighting place will life for the so-called ‘Nigger-boy' here change? It does not look so. The problem is that his interiority has been corrupted by a slave mentality. And this mentality is at large understood and practiced all over the American society. Hence, there is no way out of it. The life ahead will either be submission or struggle. It is what the ‘Nigger college' symbolizes. (Ellison 2011)
And finally we come to blood. Blood signifies far too many things here. Most remarkably it signifies violence and undirected rage. We witness a lot of blood in the story but no real anger anywhere. This disconnection is particularly striking in its ability to point out the strangeness of the place and events. Indeed something terribly wrong has happened when we see this much blood and very little rage. The little rage too is directed at one of the victims. It is potent imagery and very dramatically brings to the fore that the world we are talking about is not the usual harmonious place that everyone imagines it to be.
In a short story, the writer Ralph Ellison, through intense imagery, has succeeded in depicting the situation the plight and the rage that the black community experiences in society on a daily basis. The title of the story is Battle Royal. The name is a pun as there is nothing royal about the battle and nothing battle like about the battle itself. Even at the symbolic level there is no battle. Ellison wrote this story in 1945 and later went on to write the novel Invisible Man with this story as the first chapter. The man in the story is not invisible as a physical miracle. He is invisible because the world he lives chooses not to see him. The person not being seen is the narrator of the story.
The book was acclaimed to be the most extraordinary book written by an American in the period from 1945-65. It was the beginning of America becoming one of the two super-powers in the world. The marginalized sections of the society were finding clearer voice and greater recognition. This story is a big step.
Ellison, R.. Battle Royal. Dog's Tail Books, 2011. Print.
Frye, N. Anatomy Of Criticism. University Press. 1973. Print