Invisible Man

Invisible Man

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Ralph Ellison uses symbolism in the first chapter of Invisible Man to illustrate the culture in which he lived and was raised. In the chapter, entitled “Battle Royal”, Ellison intends to give his graduation speech to the white elite of his community. However, before her can deliver said speech, he is forced to perform humiliating tasks. The use of symbols is evident throughout “Battle Royal” particularly with regard to the Hell imagery, power struggle, and the circus metaphor.
The setting of the chapter is significantly symbolic. The story takes place in a luxurious ballroom, which Ellison has masterfully transformed into Hell. This is the smoker. The men in the audience are “smoking black cigars” (1255). The room was “foggy with cigar smoke” even though the room is described as large and has a high ceiling (1255). The narrator also gives these men animalistic qualities that essentially revealing them to be savages. They are seen “wolfing down food” (1254). Later, they “run laughing and howling after [the dancing woman]” (1257). Although far less of a ravenous image, the narrator even compares the perverted old man to an intoxicated panda. The narrator also describes them as having “red faces” (1259). In this characterization the men seemingly have all the characteristics of demons in Hell. The Hell image is advanced further when the fighters are blindfolded. The narrator explains, “..now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror.” (1257). When the fight begins, he adds, “[t]he smoke had become thicker and with each new blow it seemed to sear and further restrict my lungs. My saliva became like hot bitter glue.” (1258).
The men demonstrate their authority over him and his classmates. A prime instance of this is the dancing woman. The ten fighters were positioned in the front of the ballroom. Then the woman was exhibited, all eyes were on her. She was completely naked, except for her makeup and a tattoo of the American flag. Her face was “heavily powdered and rouged… [her] eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue.” (1256). She represents America, and therefore freedom. The men in the audience even though they are just as fixated as the fighters, have more control. In their society, they are allowed to look at a white woman. The fighters however, are black, and therefore are supposed to suppress any thoughts regarding her so they do not get killed. This display also serves to rob them of some of their masculinity.

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Upon looking at the dancing woman, the fighters become ashamed. The power struggle continues even after these demeaning events, and Ellison has still not been able to give his speech. His speech has been on his mind the whole evening and even though the men in the audience have treated him like an animal, he still wants their acknowledgement and praise. The subject of his graduation speech was “humility [is] the secret [to] the very essence of progress” (1255).
The circus metaphor illustrates the absurdity and the chaos caused by intolerance and discrimination. Ellison embeds this metaphor throughout the story. In the very beginning of the story when the narrator’s grandfather gives his final words, he begs them to kill the enemy with kindness. He says, “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth.” (1254). The narrator really does not know how to follow his grandfather’s advice and this conflict is addressed throughout the story; he does not understand if he is supposed to do what the white man says or what the white man expects. The setting is reminiscent of a circus as well; the smoker has been a place of drunken chaos since before the narrator arrived. The foldable boxing ring is also part of the circus metaphor. It ,like a circus tents, can be moved around when necessary. The ring is where the boxing match is held as is the case for circus acts. The dancing lady is a part of the circus metaphor, too. The narrator likens her hair to that of a “circus kewpie doll” and her eye shadow is the color of a “baboon’s butt” (1256). The white men not only use her as a pawn for their own entertainment, but there is the added bonus of putting the fighters in an uncomfortable position. The boxer that the narrator loses to, Tatlock, is also a component of the circus metaphor. He is the oafish giant, part of the freak show. Tatlock seems to have accepted the way society treats him. He uses that along with his size and strength to make money and survive. The white men really do not have to fear him because he represents the socially “inferior” who are complacent. The most compelling part of the circus metaphor, however, is the narrator’s dream. That night the narrator “[he] was at the circus with [his grandfather]” (1263). In the dream his grandfather would not engage the clowns. His grandfather showed him that inside his brief case contained a letter, but in that letter was another letter, and in that letter a letter, and so on. The grandfather explains that the letters represent years. It implies that as long as the white men can keep the narrator chasing the next thing, he will never have time dismantle the circus.
The image of Hell serves a powerful and true representation of the injustices that have plagued the African American community for ages. This time period was wrought with discrimination and hatred. The dancing woman is a beautiful symbol of the tight grip that white people had on even the most basic of human rights and freedoms. Even the circus metaphor, reiterates the abominable circumstances that surround these young men as they begin to venture out into the world.

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