Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653
The Bench is written in third-person limited perspective, allowing readers to know the intimate thoughts of Karlie, a man who lives in South Africa before the end of apartheid. The story undoubtedly captures some of the author's own life experience, as he was born in 1931 in Cape Town and grew up in a "colored" or "mixed race" area there. Through this perspective, readers learn of the conflicting thoughts of Karlie, who is hearing about a world of racial equality for the first time. Prior to this, he has believed in tradition:
God made the white man and the black man separately, and the one must always be 'baas' and the other "jong."
It is clear that even the truth can be difficult to accept when it conflicts with tradition. Karlie grows in his understanding, and readers follow this transformation as he becomes resolved to challenge the system.
The Bench is delivered in accessible language, unencumbered by vocabulary or syntax. Even terms that are culturally specific are well explained to make the story easily transferable. The story is told simplistically, and this adds to its power. If the truth is that the basic rights of humanity should be afforded to everyone, regardless of race, educational background, or creed, then it should be delivered in a format to make this truth as easily accessible as possible.
In this story, the bench itself comes to symbolize the deep segregation that Karlie experiences in his life. As he looks around the train station, he sees a "mass of human beings" who operate in fear as they encounter people look differently from themselves. The words "Europeans Only"—written in white, no less—stand out to Karlie in the sea of faces and represents "all the misery of the plural South African society." Karlie begins to understand that if he can conquer this one bench and tackle this one struggle, he will have accomplished something in the fight for equality. He will proclaim to the world around him that he, too, is human. He is ready to "die like a man" to end the unjust practices of apartheid and to help bring justice to people of color in his world.
Dialogue is well-utilized in the story so that we not only know of the intimate thoughts of Karlie, but we also hear what Karlie hears. The reader is able to process the segments of the speech that resonate with Karlie in the beginning of the story and to then follow the racial slurs, in all their ugliness, toward the end of the story. The use of dialogue brings the scene to life as Karlie faces his great challenge. The way the man's comments continue to amplify in their manner of insults are made more direct by the use of dialogue. And it also highlights through contrast another important aspect of this story: Karlie's silent resolve.
The author also uses symbolism through two of the characters Karlie faces. The white woman in the blue dress represents all people who fight for the oppressed when they themselves are not victims of the oppression. She is the voice who speaks out from the place of privilege to call attention to the injustices of those who suffer. Not facing oppression herself, she represents people who could choose to idly sit by and enjoy their place of societal favor yet push for the rights of humanity instead.
The man who confronts Karlie on the bench represents all people who unjustly condemn others based on personal prejudices. He is used here to symbolize all those who witness the oppressed factions of society trying to escape their place of bondage and are desperate to maintain the traditions and inequality of society. Ultimately, the man has his way, and Karlie is removed, but the reader is left with the image of Karlie's smile as he defiantly resists the ugliness and hatred which this segment of society spews.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335
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.”
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