In the “Battle Royal,” Ralph Ellison uses a female stripper to symbolize corruption and perversion in the society to which his narrator belongs. The stripper appears as the narrator and his school fellows prepare to fight and she stands “in the center” of the room into which the narrator is led, where a host of men are preparing for the spectacle of the fight. The stripper, however, symbolizes the corruption at the heart of the novel because she is clearly an object and the men use her body to wed the feelings of hostility and aggression with sexual desire, inciting the fighters to become that much more primitive in how they approach the fight.
A central problem of “Battle Royal” is the battle itself, developed as a right of passage, with the school-boy participants forced to fight one another to prove their manhood, on the one hand, and to survive on the other. The stripper becomes a symbol for the right of passage experience in this sense, though, because she is objectified and framed to encourage a corruption of positive feelings such as love and desire, but also to insight aggression. The narrator clearly struggles to reconcile the advice he received from his grandfather with the type of performance he is supposed to give and the kinds of feelings he is supposed to entertain – primarily aggression – in the ring.
The stripper, however, forces attention on the way in which the institutions of the society corrupts and victimizes: although the narrator is in a position comparable to the stripper, objectified and demeaned, he nonetheless feels a combination of desires, wanting both to “destroy her…[and] to love her and murder her” (Ellison). The manipulation of the narrator’s emotions through the stripper also establish her as a symbol of the story’s larger focus on how authorities manipulate and do so for corrupt, malicious reasons.
- Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952. Baltimore Polytechnical Institute. Web.