The Theme of Race and Human Nature in Battle Royal
The analysis and depiction of how society treats its members is a much explored one today, yet the argument that society can be cruel and hateful was highly rejected at the time of these works’ publications, which is the argument that both Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” and Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery” makes. For instance, “Lottery”, which was published in 1948, caused a scandal because at the time Americans saw themselves as part of a great and helpful country that had just defeated a great enemy in WWII. In “Lottery” a small town engages in a lottery, where the representative of a family draws a paper with a black dot, then each member of that family draws from the black box which holds the pieces of paper, one person draws the paper with the black dot, and in turn be stoned to death. In the story, the Hutchinson family’s Tessie, the mother, gets the black dot and her community quickly turns on her, even in a hurry to get to their noon supper. Ellison’s recreation of a specific event of extreme racism and hate also stirs up feelings that Americans rather not admit. The narrator in “Battle Royal” grows up with the problematic words of his grandfather who was on his deathbed, always having mixed feelings about his place in society. For his graduation, he gives a speech about humility and the powerful white men in the community have a gathering and he is invited to give his speech—but not without first being forced to take a beating from other young black boys, and doing the same to them too, followed with a painful and embarrassing event driven by the promise of money. The lives of the characters in both stories are used to depict human nature in an unflatteringly raw state because they are controlled by the standards that make up their environments. Jackson provides readers with a specific situation expressing the dangers of blindly following tradition while Ellison presents readers with a horror scene that expresses the cruel treatment of blacks by powerful white men who are also following a tradition—racism. The innocent and unknowing narrator of “Battle Royal” explores a way to respond to racism through his state of confusion and uncertainty throughout the story. Tessie, the unfortunate victim chosen by the lottery to be stoned to death in “Lottery” is a declaration of what happens when one doesn’t question an established societal habit enough, or questions it much too late. In “Battle Royal” and “Lottery”, a crudely revealing depiction of human nature is presented through the most important characters from each story that represent specific statements about humans.
While “Lottery” is a story that reminds readers of a fairy tale—one gone wrong—that probably has never happened, and “Battle Royal” is grounded in historical reality, they are greatly similar concerning the specific ways human nature is expressed using the characters from the stories. Thomas Du Bose writes an article in Masterplots about the lottery where he says the town members are introduced as wholesome people, they have stereotypically normal attitudes and lives—so when they turn on their friend, a member of their community, it is hard to gulp down and understand (2). This quickness to become murderers, even the little kids, presents another idea about human nature. Humans have the instinct to not feel sympathy when one feels so strongly that they are doing the right thing, they lack the motivation to question one’s actions even when it is obvious they are causing harm. On the other hand, the white community in “Battle Royal” most likely decide to act the way they do, they have the choice to engage in the horrid acts of racism and cruelty, but the choose to do it anyways. This greatly opposes the community in “Lottery” because that community is simply following the crowd, and actually believes that what they are doing is right, while the ‘upstanding’ white community in “Battle Royal” acts the way they do because it is a form of enjoyment. The image that Ellison creates of these men praising on the battle royal and that Jackson creates when the people begin to pick up rocks and walk toward Tessie reminds readers of mob violence, and the science behind it. These big groups of characters are representative of another statement that goes beyond mob violence and includes the setting, or restriction of the place these communities exist in.
Both stories consist of small towns and a relatively small community, thus allowing for an intimate relationship between the author’s intention for the stories’ themes to be and the character’s roles. Editor Bernice M. Murphy’s book of compiled essays on Shirley Jackson includes an essay about England gothic that says, “much of the tale’s power lies in the fact that, were one unfamiliar with the author and he origins of the tale, one could imagine it taking place in virtually any isolated rural community” (113). These small towns greatly influence the way the authors manipulate their characters to make a statement about society. Mob violence becomes prominent in these stories when the violence begins and the violence itself sets up both protagonists’ responses to the predicaments they are put in. In “Battle Royal”, the ‘mob’ is the white men chanting on the battle royal the young black boys are forced to participate in. In this battle royal scene, the narrator is finally forced to question his previous thought of humility being the right thing, the right way to go through life. In “Lottery”, the people in the small town were all convinced that the lottery was the right thing to do simply because “there’s always been a lottery”, and Tessie, the victim, is also given a chance to question the tradition the town has always followed (Jackson 142). In Ellison’s story, the narrator makes the ‘mistake’ of saying “social equality” rather than “social responsibility”, and quickly the room goes silent, and the narrator rushes to correct himself or he knows a beating similar to the one he just experienced was coming his way (Ellison, 275). Tessie and the narrator of “Battle Royal’ are protagonists thrown into a situation where they are faced with a choice of conforming to what is expected of them, or not, and risk a level of expulsion from the community.
The protagonists of the stories are the narrator in “Battle Royal” and Tessie in “Lottery”—each character is developed through backstory, given unique characteristics that work to illustrate their current level of conformity and to lead to their transformation concerning their situation in their community. The narrator recalls his upbringing as a young black boy up until his high school graduation. As a young boy, he hears his dying grandfather’s words saying that he is a spy who asks his family to “keep up the good fight” by teaching his acts of undermining the white men to the “young’uns” (Ellison 268). Editor John M. Reilly’s book of compiled essays includes an essay by Floyd R. Horowitz where he says, “At first we find him like a bear, by his own admission. He was to learn the tradition of Booker T. Washington—practical service to the Negro community, humble dignity (at least in public), intellectualized acceptance of white authority” (32). In his childhood, he is a good student who idealizes humility, this becoming obvious to readers when the narrator mentions his graduation speech, which he talks about with much fervor and passion, he is obviously quite excited to give his speech. Yet when he actually does get the chance to give his speech, the white men do not even listen, and he is rewarded with more conformity—a scholarship to a Negro state college. After participating in the battle royal and being electrocuted, it is obvious he is not as confident in his beliefs of humility as he was before. This transformation is similar to the one that happens to Tessie. She is introduced in the story as the woman who forgot it was lottery day, she was doing her chores and then realized what day it was and ran to the gathering. At the end, she protests saying that the way her family, and eventually her, were chosen was not fair, she says that they didn’t have enough time to properly pick out the slip of paper. This moment that is similar to an epiphany moment happens to both characters—Tessie realizes that the tradition they have isn’t ‘fair’, and the narrator is introduced to the idea that the white man’s tradition of racism is not fair and will only always keep down the black community.
In “Lottery”, the three most important characters that represent different human tendencies or natures are Tessie, Old Man Warner, and Mr. Summers. Tessie, the woman who ends the story with her protests about the lottery and her unfortunate death, had such a free spirit that she actually forgot about the lottery that day. She only expressed disagreement with the lottery once her family was in danger—this presents the idea that people are selfish, yet also perhaps that a community is forced to accept tradition and only has the opportunity to protest once there’s a threat to one’s life (Du Bose 2). It is almost as if people are held captive until they have a reason to stop thinking similarly to everyone else who are accepting of everything that is thrown at their feet. The person who promotes this exact idea is Old Man Warner who has participated in the lottery for 77 years. Du Bose refers to Warner as “the embodiment of rigid tradition” who strongly believes that the lottery allows them to survive, both mentally and physically. Amongst Warner’s few lines, Warner mentions a saying that he obviously believes in, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (Jackson 142). No one in the town remembers many details about the lottery, and many parts of the tradition they have stopped doing, or simply have forgotten. They are continuing the lottery “out of habit and sheer inertia”, says Du Bose. Due to their lack of knowledge of how to proceed with the tradition step by step, the town has unofficially selected a man, Mr. Summers, to lead the lottery, which includes creating the slips of paper, calling people up to take their slips, and once a certain family “wins”, calling the members of the family to take a slip, where one person will get the fateful slip with a black splotch, sealing their fate. Mr. Summers is well trusted and respected, which becomes ironic when readers find out what exactly he is leading—which resembles greatly a witch hunt. William Nelles writes in Masterplots: Women’s Literature Series an article analyzing the “Lottery” where he says, “A number of specific targets have been suggested for Jackson’s story, including American society’s obsession with finding scapegoats during the years of the Cold War and the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunts” (2). The person who ends up dead essentially did nothing wrong, they simply picked out the wrong piece of paper, and readers can quickly catch on to the inference Jackson is making about American history—which includes the numerous acts of violence without reasoning, including witch hunts, lynching, and any other acts that readers can think of.
In “Battle Royal”, there are two individual characters who represent the most prominent ideas about human nature, and one large group, the white community. The characters in “Battle Royal” that are representative of the statements Ellison is making are slightly different than to the ones in “Lottery” because of the setting with which these statements will apply to—the battle royal. The white community resembles the town in “Lottery” concerning the idea of mob violence because when the violence began, the image that the authors create for readers are quite similar and readers get the feel of one against the many. In this story, a group of young boys are blindfolded, beating each other for no reason other than survival and involuntary habit, while the white people bellow shouts of enjoyment and intoxication. The rich and powerful are a tool that Jackson uses to interrogate the way of life in America—she questions the understanding that being in a respected position and in a good economical state means someone cannot have bad morals (Du Bose 2). While the men chant on the battle royal, the narrator undergoes the beginning of a radical transformation that is told completely in Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” where “Battle Royal” is the first chapter. Tessie and the narrator realize similar things about society in the stories, but there are different circumstances and characters that help them do this. Towards the end of the battle royal, the narrator is left with one other boy in the ring, named Tatlock. They are both badly beaten by this time, and the narrator offers that Tatlock fakes defeat so that they don’t keep on fighting, but Tatlock responds with, “I’ll break your behind,” and the narrator asks sarcastically if he is doing this for the audience, and Tatlock says he is doing it for himself. Andrew MacDonald writes an article in Masterplots: Short Story Series about “Battle Royal” and says,
“[A theme,] Social Darwinism, which metaphorically encourages individuals to fight to the finish in order to receive rewards; the ways in which the black community’s strongest and wiliest members take advantage of their fellows, refusing to cooperate against the common white enemy just as Tatlock refuses to fake defeat; the corrupting influence of prizes and praise on the narrator himself; and the need for the white establishment to maintain American responses to racism and politics.”
Just as Tatlock refuses to fake defeat, Tessie’s husband refuses to help her, in fact, he takes action to make sure she shows the slip of paper and that she stops protesting. In both stories there is ideology about good versus evil, and the group of white men are the embodiment of evil in this story, creating the harsh environment that blacks must endure, thus creating the struggles they go through. Ellison created “Battle Royal” to describe the feelings of someone unsure of how to respond to racism, as well as to discuss the negative effects of throughout many different kinds of peoples’ lives. It is to describe what it is like to not know what hatred is yet, and how the effects can impact a person’s life, no matter the culture or race. The “narrator’s innocence and decency is so effectively conveyed that readers of all races and cultures can understand the problems that he faces,” says MacDonald.
Overall, the characters play a vital role because they act as step-ins, or representations, for the statements each author is making. Each character has a different purpose, and eventually the inferences made from the existence of those characters accumulates to a critical understanding concerning the depiction about human nature that is being made. Although each character is different, there is one piece from each story that acts as the ribbon on the present, that ties everything together in order to make a relation from how Tessie and the narrator from “Battle Royal” changed throughout the story. Ellison and Jackson throw in similar symbolic ideas that ground the protagonists of their stories into the socially conforming standards that control their lives. The narrator of “Battle Royal” writes a speech that declares “humility is the essence of progress”, an idea intensely similar to Booker T. Washington’s ‘cast down your bucket where you are’ (Ellison 269). The black box in “Lottery” is representative of the small town’s tradition and makes sure that the community does not stray from the tradition, it forges together everything that led to having the lottery and everything that happened afterwards. Similarly, the narrator of “Battle Royal’s” speech proves that the narrator has not yet and cannot yet question his place, thus cannot accept nor understand his dying grandfather’s words. In addition, but the speech refers to the power that the white community in his society held over him, their power made him think that humility, accepting your place, is what will eventually lead one to be considered as equal. Ellison and Jackson use their characters to attack the numerous forms of violence and “destructive social behaviors” (Nelles 3). Both Tessie and the narrator of “Battle Royal” undergo a transformation where they realize that there is something wrong with what is going on around them, with the tradition their community follows—whether it be the lottery or racism.
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