Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Part of the success of this story is its utter simplicity. The language is completely straightforward and the techniques are in no way complex. It is as though Rive looks directly into his character’s uncomplicated system of logic and constructs his story as a perfect mirror of Karlie’s mental processes. If the narrative were more subtle, or the vocabulary less accessible, the story would not have its powerful impact. Readers are shown Karlie’s step-by-step movement from innocence to commitment, and nowhere along the path are they made conscious of the roadway itself. Rive thereby convinces them that Karlie, who might represent so many other young men like himself, can, in fact, take this uncharacteristic action and go against the timid advice of his elders.

Rive uses the bench as a symbol for arbitrary territorial borders that are used to maintain an unjust social structure. That an act as meaningless in itself as sitting on a bench could prompt such virulence in many of the whites points out that they see much more meaning in the bench than it deserves. For them, it is a symbol of their control of the rules of the game: They are the ones who have the power to define, quite arbitrarily, what this simple bench is. If a native African feels free to violate this definition, who knows how many others they might also choose to redefine, and some with far greater consequences. Rive’s character, for all his simplicity, recognizes the power of symbols.

Rive constructs the story as an implied conversation between the speakers on the platform and the village elders who had counseled Karlie to know his place and to play along with the white overseers. As Karlie is won over to the words of rebellion, he begins to see Ou Klaas and the other accommodators in a less favorable light. He recognizes that they have been treated all their lives like pack animals, and he answers their implicit advice with a firm “No.”