Tag Archives: Ralph Ellison

A close reading of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”

The first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s work, The Invisible Man, concludes with a night terror. The narrator envisions attending a circus with his late grandfather, a man whose last words seem to haunt and entangle the larger moments in his young life. “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Ellison 1211).

It is not long after, when we find the narrator, penned in the lion’s mouth, fighting to keep balance on the beast’s turbulent tongue. He scrambles to stay clear from the throat, while assuring the passage of the opposing combatants to the belly. He fights the good fight, and the clowns roar with applause. The clowns here are the wealthy white men, who dizzily clamor about the Battle Royal with wide wet grins, stretched across their faces. The narrator is conducted as an act in the circus, as are his fellow black schoolmates and the blonde.  The roles of these characters as circus spectacles are dually recognized by the narrator.  He describes one of the combatants as, “glistening with sweat like a black circus seal” (1220), and the hair of the dancing blonde as, “yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll” (1213).

The theme of circus is one that stirs visuals of rings and movement; Of Circus wagons, hopping from town-to-town to captivate demanding audiences with performances of only slight variation. A circus route is one that the narrator is on. He Naïvely looks from a pit at a crowd of clowns, performing as told, blindly anticipating only calculated rewards. This circuital element is best illustrated in the closing nightmare scene, which reads,

That night I dreamed I was at a circus with him and that he refused to laugh at the clowns no matter what they did. Then later he told me to open my brief case and read what was inside and I did, finding an official envelope stamped with the state seal; and inside the envelope I found another and another, endlessly, and I thought I would fall of weariness. “Them’s years,” he said. “Now open that one.” And I did and in it I found an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold. “Read it,” my grandfather said. “Out loud!”

“To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned. “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” (Ellison 1221)

The excerpt eerily describes the narrator’s endless procurement of envelopes from the briefcase he was rewarded for his speech at the battle royal. Just like scarves from the sleeve of a clown, the stream of envelopes is endless and distracting. Upon the presentation of the calf-skinned briefcase, The School Superintendent orates the following,  “He makes a good speech and someday he’ll lead his people in the proper paths. And I don’t have to tell you that that is important in these days and times. This is a good, smart boy, and so to encourage him in the right direction, in the name of the Board of Education I wish to present him a prize in the form of this…” (1220). The prize briefcase represents the limiting path of social responsibility. Its contents, remains a series of envelopes and permissions designed to distract and occupy the recipient until their exhaustion.

Additionally, the circuital element becomes relevant when the narrator takes a service elevator with his classmates to the battle royal.  As the elevator descends, the narrator notices how, “warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator” (1212). These warm and inviting glimpses of the floors highlight the narrator’s anticipation of arrival at the event floor. Just as the envelopes pour from the briefcase like scarves, the floors flicker past him. Instead of stepping off the elevator shaft or refusing the briefcase case he continues on to the Battle Royal. Ellison represents social responsibility as something insidious. The more powerful party will act as a parasite. Slowly, the demands of that party will lick the life from the host overtime.

Part way into the battle, the narrator begins to question his path.

“A lucky blow to his chin and I had him going too –– until I heard a loud voice yell, “I got my money on the big boy.” Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance? A blow to my head as I danced about sent my right eye popping like a jack-in-the-box and settled my dilemma” (Ellison 1216).

Here the narrator comes to realize that in the realm of social responsibility, his role would be to take the hit from “the big boy”. He is then blindsided, both by the blow of a fist to his crown and his new found will for resistance.  From this turning point Elliot begins to unravel the narrators ground. In proceeding scenes the narrator reacts with surprise to his own actions. For instance, his attempt to pull one of the wealthy clowns to the electric rug, “I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug. It was such an enormous idea that I found myself actually carrying it out” (1218).   This slip of the narrator’s practiced “humility” can similarly be observed when he delivers his long awaited speech. In his committed preparation for the event, he could not have foreseen the occasion as it came to be. Barely conscious and choking on blood, he took the stage. The narrator reflects, “I closed my ears and swallowed my blood until I was nauseated. The speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word. All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered and rendered. Nor was that all” (1219).  And it certainly wasn’t all, because then amongst the shouts and pain the narrator found himself to be choking down something besides the blood from his fresh wounds.  As he tripped over the so practiced phrase of “Social Responsibility,” the word “Equality” slipped right out. Oozing out of his subconscious with the blood that drooled from his lips.

The concluding nightmare scene confirms that the narrator’s view of social responsibility has been jolted. In this conflict he gains sight of the circular path where he’s expected to remain.  Around and around he’ll go, his grandfather’s laugh trailing him all the way.




A comparison of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”

“She considered the name her personal affair. She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her… She saw it as the name of her highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn herself into Hulga” (O’Connor 1342).

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself” (Ellison 1211).

Both stories feature a character focused on his or her education. The narrator of Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is motivated to attend the town gathering to give a praised speech and is ultimately awarded a scholarship to attend college. Joy, or Hulga as she comes to be named, has a Ph.D. in philosophy and spends much of her time reading. One of the major differences between the characterization of the two is that  Ellison’s narrator seeks praise from other people, while Hulga acts only to please herself. Ellison develops a narrator who “asks everyone” how he should live his life. Throughout the battle royal, he cannot stop thinking about ultimately giving his speech and being praised by the white men gathered there. Constantly seeking recognition and approval from other people prevents one from living a life true to oneself. Being burdened by others’ opinions only serves as a detriment to self-improvement. Hulga realizes this when she can no longer put up with her mother smothering her. Though Mrs. Hopewell expresses dissatisfaction toward Hulga’s studies, Hulga proceeds to earn her Ph.D. and changes her name to further rebel against her mother’s control over her. A name is the fundamental way to define a person. By taking control of her life and changing her name to something she likes better, Hulga exhibits a character trait much different from Ellison’s narrator: self-awareness.

A similarity between the two stories is the objectification of the woman in “Battle Royal” when compared to Hulga being taken advantage of by Manley Pointer. The woman in “Battle Royal” is used to elicit desire in the young men. She is dehumanized when aspects of her are referred to as “the face,” “the hair,” and “the eyes” and when she herself is called simply “the blonde” (1213). She is defined by a sum of her parts, rather than respected as a woman. Meanwhile, Hulga is largely characterized by her artificial leg. Pointer has come to her under the pretense of loving her, but he really only wants to take advantage of her and then steal her leg. While the woman in “Battle Royal” feels disgust toward being characterized in such a way, the same cannot necessarily be said of Hulga (1214). Hulga, on the other hand, feels lost “without the leg” (1352). It is undeniably a part of her and makes her unique. She embraces the presence of her artificial limb and is “as sensitive about [it] as a peacock about his tail” (1351). Both women, however, are used by men who mean to take advantage of such aspects of their persons, and they are thus forced to face the reality that some people do not share their true intentions.

Comparing Ellison’s “Battle Royal” to Faulkner’s “Was”

“”Wins Sibbey, damn it!” Mr. Hubert said. “Wins Sibbey! What the hell else are we setting up till midnight arguing about? The lowest hand wins Sibbey and buys the niggers,”” (Faulkner 23).

“They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys,” (Ellison 1214).

Scenes of intense subjugation often permeate literature, particularly literature focused on the plight of the twentieth century African American. Often, these scenes of African Americans mirror those of women; both Ellison’s “Battle Royal” and Faulkner’s “Was” examine the mistreatment of African Americans, but they also acknowledge the suppression of women. Just as Sophonsiba Beauchamp’s future is ultimately determined by a poker game conducted by white men, so white men also control the blond woman in “Battle Royal”. Initially, both women are portrayed as possessing command over their actions. Sophonsiba is likened to a bear, seducing men into her den (Faulkner 21). The blond woman dances sensuously, hypnotizing the men who encircle her. Despite these initial impressions, both authors eventual lead the reader to understand that the women are not as free as they first appear. In both cases, the women are reduced to animals, just as there their African American counterparts often are. Sophonsiba is traded back and forth for money, bringing to mind prostitution. Similarly, the blond woman’s features are described as “the hair” and “the face” and “the eyes”, rather than “her hair” and “her face” and “her eyes” (Ellison 1213). The deliberate switch from “her” to “the” dehumanizes the blond women. Her features are not her own, but, rather, her features belong to those who view her. The sensual display she enacts is not by her own free will, but for the pleasure of the white men who surround her. Though money is not directly involved with the blond woman, the nudity does bring to mind prostitution-like scenarios, just as Faulkner’s “Was”.

One interesting difference between the portrayal of Sophonsiba and the blond woman is that Ellison allows the reader to glimpse the blond woman’s potential emotions. Though the reader is limited to the view of the narrator, the narrator perceptively notices that the blond woman’s eyes possess “terror and disgust” (Ellison 1214). The narrator’s acknowledgement of the blond woman’s potential feelings conflicts with his initial observations, which used the word “the” rather than “her”. In addition to serving as a device to compare the blond woman’s subjectivity to his own, perhaps the narrator’s initial observations contrast to his later observations to highlight the difference between early perceptions and later improved understanding and possible formation of empathy. This possible evolution in the narrator’s attitude might thus be present to suggest a method for white men to similarly learn to the view African American men with more awareness and understanding.

Comparing Ellison’s “Battle Royal” to Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was … I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (Ellison 1211).

“At certain times I have no race, I am me” (Hurston 941).

The struggle for identity permeated the African-American community throughout the twentieth century. An American society still rife with racism and intolerance persisted long after the abolition of slavery; and in such an environment, creative forces sought to define their role within and apart from the whole. Two black writers of this era included Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, whose writings embody this societal complexity. Ellison’s 1952 “Battle Royal,” excerpted from Invisible Man, and Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” each approach the conflict with different styles. Ellison, who allegedly “insisted on being a writer rather than a spokesman for a cause or a representative figure,” creates a narrative form that utilizes strong simile and seems to possess allegorical notes (1209). By contrast, Hurston’s 1928 essay, while employing vivid metaphorical language, conveys a distinctly individualistic attitude that radiates a definitively present, if somewhat circumspect, optimism.

Hurston declares, “Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you” (941). Indeed, Hurston seems to indicate that mentality is the primary blockade preventing full understanding. She demonstrates this at the end of her essay, where she devises the metaphor of the colored paper bags filled with a mélange of contents – ostensibly establishing that we are all intrinsically similar yet unique beings (943). Misunderstanding is the only real difficulty to be surmounted. Yet Ellison highlights the ongoing subjugation through his portrayal of white men treating the black fighters and the white woman as objects of entertainment by cruel, animalistic means. The “leading white citizens” superficially assert their claims of domination by teasing the fighters with brass “gold” coins and relishing the spectacle of the struggle (1217, 1220).

Ellison’s style is personal and appropriately bias; yet what is perhaps most perturbing is the stoicism that the narrator displays. Ellison, through the grandfather’s dying words and the narrator’s speech, suggests that humility and understanding are essential to the wellbeing of society (1212). Yet even after witnessing and being victim of the atrocities, the narrator displays little suggestion of resentment or anger, as he would be entirely justified to feel; his stoicism borders upon indifference, almost acceptance. He still desires, even after the fight, even after the electrified rug incident, the chance to give his speech. Alas, as he speaks he must “[gulp] it down, blood, saliva and all,” showing no pain as the men in the audience heckle him and laugh (1219). The conclusion to “Battle Royal” contains the ultimate irony, as the narrator receives his refined briefcase and scholarship with great appreciation in spite of the disgusting nature of the men bestowing it upon him. This enthusiasm is only checked by the disillusioning dream involving the grandfather, who mocks the narrator’s lack of vengeful strength (1221).

Indeed, for Hurston, the search for identity as an African-American appears to be a primarily internal conflict, one to be handled with the attitude of adjustment. For Ellison, it is one of external conflict, suggesting that the path towards harmony necessitates an entire upheaval of behavior, a re-establishment and equal application of humane values.

Intro to Ralph Ellison


Ralph Ellison was a hugely influential African American voice of the 20th century.  He was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City.  His father died when he was three years old.  Years later, he was awarded a scholarship to attend Tuskegee Institute to study music and gain proficiency with both the trumpet and piano.  During his time in college he became infatuated with modern literature, finding particular inspiration in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.  After three years at Tuskegee, Ellison moved to New York City to study visual arts.  There, he met author Richard Wright who saw Ellison’s potential after reading one of his book reviews.  Wright strongly encouraged Ellison to pursue writing and was a large source of support for the majority of his career.  Ellison began his most prominent work, Invisible Man in 1945 and it was finally published in 1952.  He was heavily awarded for Invisible Man as well as his many other essays and stories. He went on to teach at Bard College, University of Chicago, and New York University.  Wright’s work has been celebrated for it’s independence from his contemporaries, but criticized for not being sufficiently devoted to social protest.  Ellison saw his success as a failure, wishing to be seen as an author who wrote stories rather than an activist who wrote socio-political statements.  However, in his writing Ellison tackles issues of identity, individuality, and social conformity, all the while maintaining undercurrents of vibrant culture and imagination which stem from his artistic passions.