Gaining freedom does not mean one has gained equality. The civil war ended slavery but African Americans still suffered from racism. Ralph Ellison touches on this topic in his short story “Battle Royal” which portrays the life of a young African American post-civil war. Before the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” was an “invisible man” he was a young African American who had to deal with oppression in order to survive in his modern time.
Ralph Ellison uses symbolism, metaphors, and imagery in “Battle Royal” in order to enhance the portrayal of the life of a young African American male who tries to achieve academic success while being oppressed by his white counterparts. Symbolism is used in many parts of this short story; however, the most impacting point upon which symbolism is used is in the ballroom of the leading hotel where the battle royal takes place.
During the battle royal, Ellison is describing the scenery upon which he is forced to fight with fellow classmates who genuinely hate him even though they are fellow African Americans. Ellison explains the feeling of helplessness as he received blows from all directions and struggled to make it through the match with as little injury as possible. This is a great use of symbolism because it shows the barbarity of African Americans during the time. In a sense all the participants in the battle royal are hungry for success and know it is practically impossible unless they do as they are told.
This symbolism is used to enhance the idea that during this time, rising to higher success for the African American race required them to clash with one another due to the fact that the white oppressors didn’t want the African American race to thrive. Amidst being in the ballroom the narrator is pushed to the front where he and the other African Americans are forced to watch a naked white woman, who is described as being “stark-naked” with an American flag painted on her upper torso, dance.
The narrator describes the feeling in the room as terrifying because he wanted to look at the woman but he also wanted to run away. She is used as a metaphor of one of the many things that African American’s lust. This was the white man’s way of saying America, the white women, and the African American’s civil rights belong to the white race and African American’s will never be seen as equals. Ellison also explains the disgust the woman feels during performing these actions in order to add on to the inequality of rights and have a minor play on the difference between white men and white women rights during this time.
It’s a great way to subliminally show that even though the narrator was suffering from oppression of another race, just like there were issues in the African American’s community, there were also problems in the white community. This metaphor shows how slim the chances were for the African Americans of this time because the white men even treated white women with little to no respect which implies that African Americans were literally shut off from the white economy. Ellison uses very descriptive imagery to describe the final scenes of the story.
The narrator has finally finished the battle royal and is finally able to present his speech to the all-white male group. Ellison explains how he is receiving blatant disrespect from the group who is talking, laughing, and ignoring him as he recites his speech. Ellison later describes the struggle of reciting his speech as he states “I gulped it down, blood, saliva and all. ” Ellison eventually states a line about equality between the African Americans and the Whites which soon gets the attention of all the white men in the room.
They soon criticize the narrator’s choice of words, who is then forced to change it in order to keep the group happy. This portrays a hostile scene where the young African American male has no choice but to try to get his point across without putting his life in danger. Ellison plays on both visual and organic imagery as an image is painted of a disrespected, bloodied, and fatigued African American male who is fed up with playing the role of an obedient slave. Ellison is very descriptive throughout the entire story which allows the message to eloquently flow off the page and into the readers mind.
The image of the hostile situation during Ellison’s speech fluently bridges the metaphor of the white race owning America. Furthermore, the imagery and metaphor tie into the symbolism of barbarity amongst the African American race as it strives to achieve academic success. Ellison’s complex symbolism, eloquent metaphors, and descriptive imagery amplify the illustration of his quest to academic success while playing the role of the obedient slave for his white adversaries.