Use of Paradox to Enhance Atmosphere of Chaos in “Battle Royal”
Few rooms in literature are as vividly drawn as the fancy hotel ballroom in Ralph Ellison's ‘‘Battle Royal.’’
Full of smoke, whiskey fumes, the red faces of howling drunken men watching a white woman dancing and a group of black boys fighting, the room calls to mind a chaotic vision of hell by Hieronymus Bosch. Ralph
Ellison was fascinated by the chaos of the world, and saw confronting and depicting it as a writer's responsibility. In ‘‘That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure: An Interview,’’ he explains, ' T think that the mixture of the marvelous and the terrible is a basic condition of human life and that the persistence of human ideals represents the marvelous pulling itself up out of the chaos of the universe. In the fairy tale, beauty must be awakened by the beast, and the beastly man can only regain his humanity through love.. . . Here the terrible represents all that hinders, all that opposes human aspiration, and the marvelous represents the triumph of the human spirit over chaos.''
The challenge in pulling oneself up is learning to make distinctions, to see individual details in a chaotic swirl of elements. Ellison's language consistently draws attention to the ballroom as a place where seeing is difficult, where vision is literally and figuratively clouded. The room is entered, like a carnival fun house, through a ‘‘big mirrored hall,’’ and what is found inside is not to be trusted. The room is ‘‘foggy with cigar smoke’’ as the boys enter, and the white men are engrossed with something the narrator and his friends cannot see. Against the backdrop of the sensuous clarinet, the narrator repeats the idea that ‘‘the big shots were becoming increasingly excited over something we could not see.’’ As the episode begins, the two groups are separated by what they can and cannot see.
The ‘‘big shots’’ eventually push the narrator forward, where the nude woman is dancing, ‘‘the smoke of a hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest of veils.’’ Here the idea of seeing/not seeing becomes tangled on itself. The narrator wants to see her and yet not to see her: ' T was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked.’’ The white men, having pushed the black teenagers forward, cannot decide how they should behave, and ‘‘some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not.’’ What does it mean to look, and to see? What effect does looking have on the thing looked at? The dancer seems not to respond to the men's gaze, or to their drunken excitement, but retains "impersonal eyes'' and a "detached look on her face.’’
After the dancer is carried from the room, the battle royal begins, and again the imagery of seeing/ not seeing is insistent. As they are about to fight, the boys are literally "blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth,’’ and the narrator feels a "sudden fit of blind terror.’’ As the fight begins, the voices of the shouting men frighten the narrator, and he tries to move his blindfold aside because "I wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before.’’ But the blindfold is too tight, and the narrator comes to realize that a man who can't see is powerless. ‘‘Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity.’’
After a particularly hard blow to the face, the narrator discovers that his bandage has been knocked aside a bit and he has partial vision in one eye. Although the fighters are now out of control and hysterical, the narrator feels more in control, because "with my eye partly open now there was not so much terror.’’ The rest of the boys are still ‘‘blind, groping crabs,’’ but the narrator, with his limited vision, plays "one group against the other, slipping in and throwing a punch then stepping out of range.’’ He believes now that his physical vision increases his control, but he soon finds that this is not the case. Although he is able to literally see what the other boys are doing around him, he does not see what they are planning as they exit the ring one by one and leave him to fight the "biggest of the gang.’’
The distinction between literal and figurative seeing is driven home (to the reader, if not to the narrator) when the boys are ordered to pick up their money where it is lying on the carpet. The narrator sees what the men want him to see: "I saw the rug scattered with coins of all dimensions, and a few crumpled bills. But what excited me, scattered here and there, were the gold pieces.’’ Of course, the gold pieces are a trick, just as the electrified carpet is a trick.
Although the white men certainly bear a large portion of the blame for the boys' deception—they are, in fact, deliberately tricking the boys for their own amusement—Ellison makes it clear that the narrator's youth and inexperience, and his excitement at being asked to give his speech, also contribute to his situation. He is frequently distracted by the prospect of giving his speech. When the blindfolds are being put on the boys, the narrator does not at first realize what is happening to him, because ‘‘even then I had been going over my speech.’’ He is thinking about his speech when the other boys start leaving the ring. When he is fighting Tatlock at the end of the battle royal, he thinks again of his speech, and he becomes "confused'': ‘‘I wanted to give my speech more than anything else in the world"; "Should I try to win . . . ? Would not this go against my speech . . . ?’’ While his mind is thus occupied, Tatlock delivers the blow that knocks the narrator out.
Beyond the narrator's youthful eagerness, he is also subject to the same human weaknesses as his white tormenters. As he explained in a 1953 essay titled ‘‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,'' Ellison had found that American writers ‘‘seldom conceive Negro characters possessing the full, complex ambiguity of the human. Too often what is presented as the American Negro (a most complex example of Western man) emerges an oversimplified clown, a beast or an angel. Seldom is he drawn as that sensitively focused process of opposites, of good and evil, of instinct and intellect, of passion and spirituality, which great literary art has projected as the image of man.’’ In creating the protagonist of ‘‘Battle Royal’’ and the novel Invisible Man, Ellison consciously tried to depict not an innocent victim or "angel," but a full, rich, complex human being, capable of making mistakes, and of learning and growing.
Ellison explained in The Art of Fiction that ‘‘the narrator's development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment: invisibility to visibility.’’ He was referring in this line to the whole novel, Invisible Man, of which ‘‘Battle Royal’’ was the first chapter. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find that this narrator is often blind, and in many ways ignorant. In many ways, his attitudes and behavior echo those of the white ‘‘big shots’’ in the ballroom. The narrator is not at fault simply for participating willingly in his own humiliation. He also shares in the white men's feelings of superiority, and is himself capable of behaving as an oppressor. As he rides in the elevator toward the ballroom, he thinks about the boys with him, and thinks, 'I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn't like the manner in which we were all crowded together.’’
As brutal and humiliating as the battle royal itself seems to readers in the twenty-first century, Ellison does not entirely blame the white men for its existence. Most of the boys seem to take for granted that fighting this way is a good way to earn money, and the narrator has ‘‘some misgivings’’ only because he "didn't care too much for the other fellows who were to take part.’’ Ellison wrote about the battle royal in The Art of Fiction, describing it as "a vital part of behavior pattern in the South, which both Negroes and whites thoughtlessly accept. It is a ritual in preservation of caste lines, a keeping of taboo to appease the gods and ward off bad luck. It is also the initiation ritual to which all greenhorns are subjected. This passage which states what Negroes will see I did not have to invent; the patterns were already there in society, so that all I had to do was present them in a broader context of meaning.’’
The narrator is not at fault simply for participating willingly in his own humiliation. He also shares in the white men's feelings of superiority, and is himself capable of behaving as an oppressor. As he rides in the elevator toward the ballroom, he thinks about the boys with him, and thinks, "I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn't like the manner in which we were all crowded together.’’ As he fights Tatlock, he feels more on a par with the men than with the boy: "I felt that only these men could truly judge my ability, and now this stupid clown was ruining my chances.’’
The most disturbing example of the narrator's own capacity for cruelty and oppression comes when he watches the nude dancer. His description of the "magnificent blonde'' strips her of all humanity, and reduces her to an object, a collection of body parts: ‘‘The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon's butt.’’ In watching her and dehumanizing her, the narrator is no different from the white men who are doing the same thing, and his response to her echoes the hatred the men feel for him: "I felt a desire to spit upon her as my eyes brushed slowly over her body.’’ The atmosphere of chaos, of paradox, engulfs the narrator as he watches the dancer, and his feelings are contradictory and overwhelming: "I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her.’’
When the dancer has been carried from the room, and the boys have toweled off and changed their clothes, the narrator does at last get to present his speech. As the men continue to drink and talk among themselves, the boy speaks eloquently about wisdom and patience and social responsibility. After all he has been through with these men, he is still taken in by their ‘‘thunderous applause.’’ When they present him with a college scholarship, it makes up for everything: ‘‘I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens.’’
Has the boy learned anything from his experience? There is no indication that he has. By presenting the ballroom as a chaotic world where nothing can be trusted, and by presenting the boy as fully human and flawed, Ellison makes a happy ending impossible. There is still too much for the boy to overcome, too much for him to learn. He does not yet know the difference between looking and seeing, and he does not understand that in a world of chaos, a piece of paper is no more to be trusted than a gold piece on a carpet. At the end of the story, though, there is some hope. The narrator is about to embark on a college education, and beyond that a life education. He has not yet pulled himself "up out of the chaos of the universe,'' but he is about to take the first step.