precise details of Ralph Ellison's life to see that he is expressing ideas and attitudes if not actual events from his own life in his story "Battle Royal," and a biographical strategy illuminates what Ellison has to say. Ellison shows the reaction of the white world to a black man with an education, such as he himself had, and he also shows how the black man is torn between justifiable pride in learning and the reality of what that learning means to the larger society of which he is a part. The action of the Battle Royal sequence, the people present, and different elements referred to in the text have symbolic power to show the nature of black-white relations, the particular role of the black man in society, and many of the traps that have been set for blacks by whites.
The main character in the Invisible Man is invisible in a metaphorical and symbolic sense, invisible both to himself and to others, and invisible in a way that has resonance for other characters in modern literature and for modern man himself. The hero of this novel is a black man who is invisible in white society because he is black, in black society because he takes on various expected roles accepted by white society, and to himself because he has been subsuming his real character in these roles and has not allowed himself to exist as a real person with his own point-of-view.
Ellison in the "Battle Royal" section details an event when the protagonist was a young man and was asked to give a speech at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens. In fact, the event is a betrayal, and first the young black men in attendance are humiliated by a blonde dancer and then are forced into a makeshift ring to fight one another. Ellison shows how the white power structure turns one black against another. This is what happens in the ring -- the blacks fight one another as a way of giving themselves a sense of power and authority. This becomes a key event in the creation of the Invisible Man, the man who can escape from both the white power structure and black society simply by living underground and not being seen.
The setting itself is symbolic of the distance between the white world and the black. The setting is "the main ballroom of the leading hotel" (17), a room filled with "the town's big shots" (17) wearing tuxedos. Their affluence is indicted by the fact that they are "wolfing down the buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars" (17). The Invisible Man himself notes how the coming battle royal might contrast with "the dignity of my speech" (18), as it certainly does.
The nude blonde becomes symbolic of all the fears of whites projected onto the blacks, who chatter in fear because they also know how often they have been accused of lusting after white women. The proximity of the blonde, a symbol of white power over blacks, leaves the Invisible Man filled with "irrational guilt and fear" (19). For him, the blonde is both an attraction and something repulsive, and he describes her in ways showing a conflict between automatic lust and fear. She represents the white world, which has features that the black man envies even as he resents being made to do so. She looks back at him with "her impersonal eyes" (19), a symbol of the way whites look at blacks in his world.
Images of eyes and vision have symbolic meaning throughout this chapter, especially in terms of wanting to see and wanting not to see at the same time. When the blacks are sent to fight, they are "blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth" (21). The blindfolding prevents them from seeing even their own degradation, and it is significant that the cloths used are white. The blacks are left in darkness, symbolic of the way they are placed in society, and in contrast to the well-lit white world surrounding the ring. The ring itself is symbolic of how the blacks are separated from the white world and placed under the watchful eyes of a room full of whites. The blacks are all forced into the ring and told not to try to leave. The ring is also where the blonde was degraded before that and where the blacks were made to feel uncomfortable at being in the same room with her. Their humanity is stripped away by having to be in the ring. The blindfold only adds to this, leaving the Invisible Man with "no dignity" (22).
The action in the ring is symbolic as well, as the whites force the blacks to fight one another. The Invisible Man would not indulge in certain behaviors on his own, but for self-protection he finds himself doing what the whites want him to do: "I played one group against the other... " (23). Further symbolic of his degradation is the blood that emerges "from both nose and mouth, the blood spattering upon my chest" (23).
The whites are described several times using animal imagery, creating a symbolic vision of animal behavior. One of the man in the crowd watching the blonde is said to have a "posture like that of an intoxicated panda" (20). With the blindfold on, the Invisible Man says he "suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths" (21).
When the blindfold is removed, the Invisible Man discovers another reason for being kept in the dark -- he does not know what dangers face him until two white men remove the blindfold so he can see "Tatlock, the biggest of the gang" (24). Another act symbolic of how white society plays blacks against each other comes when the fight is over and the money for winnings is scattered on a rug. The rug is symbolic of the small portion of earnings given to blacks at all, and the way that money is to be distributed shows how the many fight for these few dollars white society gives them and fight each other rather than the whites. This is made even clearer when the young black men find that the rug is electrified -- the deck is stacked against them at every turn.
When he is finally able to deliver his speech, the Invisible Man is given a calfskin brief case as a prize. He is told it represents "a badge of office" (32) and his future when he will have it "filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people" (32). The reality of that destiny is symbolized by the "bloody saliva" (32) that gets on the case. That saliva has a shape like "an undiscovered continent" (32), again symbolic of an unknown future, but a future that will have to be won by blood. Inside is a scholarship, which may be a symbol of opportunity but which can also be identified as a symbol of the limitations placed on blacks -- they are allowed to go to college, but they are not allowed to follow that to success the way whites would. This is pointed out through the dream the Invisible Man has that night, a dream in which his grandfather, who always symbolizes a kind of wisdom for the Invisible Man, shows him the true nature of the certificate given him by the white man.
The Invisible Man's invisibility become a symbolic answer to the kind of treatment and behavior seen in the Battle Royal sequence. After this, rather than remaining blindfolded, the Invisible Man will put blinders on others as he hides his true nature from the world. The Invisible Man is invisible because he takes on the…