Summary

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Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

The Bench begins with Karlie, the protagonist, listening to a series of speeches on the unequivocal rights of blacks in his native South Africa. He has come from a small town and has never heard these ideas expressed before. Visiting Johannesburg, he suddenly hears ideas such as the following:

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[A] society that condemns a man to an inferior position because he has the misfortune to be born black, a society that can only retain its precarious social and economic position at the expense of an enormous oppressed mass.
It is up to us to challenge the right of any group who willfully and deliberately condemn a fellow group to a servile position. We must challenge the right of any people who see fit to segregate human beings solely on grounds of pigmentation.

Karlie processes these ideas. They are hard for him to believe, as he has never heard such things, but somehow they ring true.

He is still contemplating these "dangerous" ideas when he reaches the train station. He remembers that one speaker said that each person "must challenge these things . . . in one's own way." And then he spies the bench for "Europeans only." Suddenly, this bench represents his challenge to the rights of humanity, and Karlie sees his chance to challenge the prejudice all around him. He sits.

Initially, he faces an internal battle. One side of him feels compelled to move, carrying much burden as he feels the

servile position he had occupied on the far, of his father, and his father's father who were born black, lived like blacks, and died like mules.

Yet the other part of him wins this internal struggle, and he becomes determined to "die like a man" in an effort to dare to overturn the societal prejudices around him.

At first, no one even seems to notice him, but eventually a voice rings out: "Get off this seat!" Although Karlie is belittled with terms like "swine," he not only refuses to move, but also refuses to engage in a verbal battle, smoking his cigarette and remaining quiet. The speaker threatens to call the police, and still Karlie does not move from "a white man's bench." People gather to observe the scene, and he realizes that "irresolution had now turned to determination." The police arrive, and Karlie refuses to speak to them as well. One of the speakers from the rally appears and insists that Karlie be spoken to with respect. The crowd turns violent, pressing in on Karlie, and he is cuffed by the officers.

As he leaves, Karlie smiles, having challenged the system "and won." As the police lead him away, commanding him to come with him, Karlie speaks his first word: "Certainly!" He leaves with the pride "of one who dared sit on a 'European bench.' "

Summary

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Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

After Karlie has lived all of his life in a remote rural part of South Africa, this is his first visit to Johannesburg, a bustling metropolis in which all sorts of people rub shoulders. More obviously than in his more segregated home town, Johannesburg shows the tensions that result from the rigid system of separation of races known as apartheid. Karlie sees people of all colors—some black, some white, and others mixed.

As the story opens, Karlie is standing in a large crowd that is listening to a black speaker who is proclaiming the rights of black majority, the working class to whom he refers as the proletariat. Karlie is impressed by what the speaker is saying because it seems to be the first time that he has even considered the possibility that blacks do, in fact, have any rights at all. He notices that two white detectives are taking notes on everything that is being said at the meeting.

As Karlie listens, he recalls the advice he received from elders in his own community. Ou Klaas, for example, taught him that God created blacks and whites separately, and therefore they should continue to live separately.

On the platform with the speaker is a white woman in a blue dress and Nxeli, whom Karlie recognizes as a famous trade-union organizer. As he watches, the white woman gets up and begins speaking. She encourages the black crowd to refuse to play by the rules imposed by the whites: Blacks, she says, should sit wherever they please, and go wherever they want.

As he leaves the meeting, Karlie is both confused by the new ideas and exhilarated. He doubts whether anything of this sort could ever be put into action in his own little town, but he is beginning to think it might be a possibility. At the train station that will send him home he notices, in a new way, a bench labeled “Europeans only.” Inspired by all that he has heard and the sense of individual responsibility that the speakers have aroused in him, he decides to sit on the forbidden bench.

At first, no one seems to notice him. Time passes, and he thinks that his protest may go unheeded. After a while he eases into his new situation, and sits simply because he is tired. At that moment a young white man shouts at him to get up off the bench. Karlie neither speaks nor moves. As the white man continues shouting, a crowd gathers. Different people express different reactions. Some are outraged that Karlie will not sit on the benches reserved for blacks. Others declare that he should be allowed to sit wherever he wishes.

A police officer arrives and tells Karlie to move. Again, Karlie remains silent and stays where he is. As the officer begins shouting, the white woman who gave the speech Karlie heard approaches and defends Karlie’s rights. Nevertheless, the officer begins beating Karlie; he puts handcuffs on him and drags him away. At first Karlie struggles and tries to hold on to the bench; when he sees that this is hopeless, he stands up and goes with the officer, smiling and asserting the arrogance that he now feels.

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Themes