‘The Bench’ is a story by Richard Rive that focuses on the idea of apartheid in South Africa through Karlie, a colored South African man who is influenced by a speech on racial discrimination that he sets off to challenge the injustice of racism. The story explores the themes of racial discrimination and violence.
The Bench | Summary
The story focuses on Karlie who is standing in a crowd. He is looking at a platform where some speakers are giving a speech on how black people are stripped of their basic existential rights and treated as inferiors to white people. The speakers are behaving in a way as if there is no difference between black and white. A white woman in a blue dress offers a cigarette to Nxeli. He is impressed by the speech and for the first time considers that black people do have their rights.
Karlie leaves when the meeting is almost over and the speech keeps playing in his head. He is confused by the new ideas provided in the speech as they are dangerous and he needed to give much thought. He sees the station and the mass of both white and black walking around who mistrust each other and are skeptical of each other. He remembers the speaker’s speech about challenging discrimination and it dawns upon him that he can challenge the bench which is for “Europeans Only”. He sits on the bench and two conflicting ideas start to trouble him. He is torn between him having the right to sit on the bench and he doesn’t have the right to sit on it.
Karlie smokes a cigarette while sitting on the bench and no one seems to take notice of him. A woman passes by him and he thinks she might ask him to move but she sweeps past him without even noticing him. Karlie is now tired and a third conflicting idea hits him. He starts to think he sits on the bench because he is tired. Suddenly a man shouts at him to get off the bench. Karlie neither responds to him nor moves from the bench. He just slowly puffs at the cigarette. The man keeps shouting and threatens to call the policeman. A crowd gathers throwing different opinions on the situation. The policeman arrives and towers over him. Karlie sits silently even when the policeman questions his whereabouts. The white woman in the blue dress whom Karlie heard approaches to help Karlie but the policeman starts hitting Karlie without listening to her. Other people start pulling and hitting him and the constable puts handcuffs on him. Karlie struggles and suddenly stops as he thinks it’s useless. He just smiles as he thinks he has won the challenge he dared to sit on a “European bench”.
The Bench | Analysis
The story begins with Karlie, a colored man listening to a life-changing speech that makes him realize the injustice of racial discrimination. Karlie stands in a crowd and he is focused on a black speaker who is talking about the discrimination against black people. He notices two detectives are taking notes on the speech.
Karlie is impressed by the speech because he never imagined that he could have rights, the colored people could have rights. For a moment he feels that the idea that he is as good as any white man needs much thinking. This shows how colored people are stripped of their basic human rights when Karlie thinks he can have the right to eat in a movie or restaurant or that their children can go to a white school is dangerous.
Karlie looks at the platform and feels there is no difference between the white and black when a white woman offers Nxeli a cigarette. This image is contrary to the apartheid situation prevailing during the period in South Africa. The platform is like a utopia in the dystopian world of colored people.
The speech causes Karlie to evolve from only a colored man to a human being. The speech changed him. He couldn’t get over the speech and decided to challenge the norms. He visits the station and sees a bench labeled with white paint ” Europeans Only”. He makes up his mind that sitting on the bench which is meant only for white people will be his challenge against discrimination, the way he heard in the speech.
He struggles with his internal conflicts as he has earlier mentioned it is dangerous to rebel against such a huge issue that too alone. He starts thinking that it is his basic right as a human being to sit on the bench and he cannot sit on the bench because he is a colored man. A third conflict pops into his mind he sits on the bench because he is tired. He becomes conscious and alert as he notices everyone passing by him to see if they notice him. He is worried about one moment that his challenge might go in vain but suddenly he hears a man scream at him to get off the bench. Karlie doesn’t answer him except puffing his cigarette silently.
The white man misbehaves with him and abuses him calling him different offensive names as if he is a threat when he is the one calmly sitting. The man’s scream attracts a crowd and they have different responses to Karlie sitting on the bench. Some give outrageous remarks about him while others support him. The policeman arrives and Karlie is arrested. The policeman talks to him disrespectfully and tries to drag him. He turns red when one of the spectators asks him to treat Karlie with respect. Soon Karlie is pulled and hit by people that he can no more resist. He just smiles at the end despite being manhandled and abused because that stands nothing in front of his victory. He dared to sit on a “European bench”, a bench that is forbidden for colored people.
Karlie’s character changes throughout the story. In the beginning, he is curious as well as ignorant of the basic human rights that he owns. The speech enlightens him. And he is motivated to challenge the racist and discriminatory notions of the period. He challenges the notions of the era when he sits on a bench that is meant for only Europeans. He starts his story as a common man but ends as a hero, he does what his father and his father’s father could not have done. He rises against unfair discrimination and stands against the complex society that denies basic rights to existence and looks down on people who are born colored.
The story hints at humanity through the spectators who take Karlie’s side when he is sitting on the European bench and when the white woman who gave her speech on the platform comes to his rescue. And the behavior of the white man towards Karlie shows how black people are treated in general. Karlie is abused, pulled, and beaten by the people, and he utters nothing except a smile to show his resistance. The policeman arrives and without any question, misbehaves with Karlie and arrests him. The discrimination prevailing during the period is evident through the spectator and the official’s actions.
This one instance, this incident shows the struggle the colored people go through every day. Karlie is abused on the road, his internal conflicts regarding his simple decision of sitting on a bench, the white man screaming at him and hurling abuses, the mixed reaction from spectators, and the behavior of the officers. It is that humans are against humans only because of color difference, prejudice, and assumptions and that adds to the misery of the oppressed colored people.
The Bench | Narrative Technique
The story is narrated through a third-person narrative using straightforward language which shows the thoughts of the main character, Karlie who lives in South Africa during apartheid. The story presents the internal conflicts of Karlie and his emotions from the beginning to the end of the story.
The Bench | Themes
Racism – Karlie notices the speakers on the platform giving speeches on the discrimination against colored people, and how they are stripped of their basic human rights and are treated as inferiors because they are born black. The speech on the discriminatory society they live in affects Karlie because it implies the injustice faced by black people. Karlie is unaware of the misery that he lives through until he hears the speech. An ignorant man is influenced by the speakers who educate him on how he is deprived of the basic rights of existence and mistreated only because he is black. He had thought this is how it is supposed to be, the white superior to the black. He realizes he has been deceived and he sets off to challenge the unjust norms of society. The speech changes everything that he knows. It brings him new truth and awareness and even a sense of responsibility.
Racism is clearly shown throughout the speech. The speech and platform only exist as a symbol to fight against racism. The labeling of a bench in the station as ” Europeans Only” shows racist behavior towards colored people. The man screaming at Karlie to get off the bench shows his racist attitude toward Karlie. The officer arrests Karlie simply because he sits on a bench that wrote “Europeans Only” and some spectators pull and hit him which shows the preconceived notion of racism. Karlie’s sitting on the bench is a challenge as he fights against racism.
Violence – Karlie sits calmly on the bench busy fighting his inner conflicts. Suddenly a man appears and shouts at him to get off the bench. Karlie doesn’t respond to him and calmly puffs his cigarette. The man gets violent as he starts abusing him with different offensive names. Karlie sits quietly without flinching. The man’s abuses attract a crowd and they have mixed opinions of Karlie sitting on the bench. The officer arrives and starts pulling him from the bench only after asking his whereabouts. He behaves with him rudely and handcuffs him. When he tries to resist he is hit by one of the spectators and while the constable is taking him through the crowd he is hit again to the point where he struggles to stand at his feet.
The Bench | Characters
Karlie- The main character of the story. The story begins with Karlie who notices people on a platform giving a speech on racial discrimination and the rights of colored people. He is influenced by the speech and sets off to challenge the discrimination. When he reaches the train station he notices a bench labeled “Europeans Only” and decides to sit on the bench to challenge the norms. Karlie’s character transforms throughout the story as he is an ignorant man at first unaware of the misery the black people are put through that he considered normal at first and later he turns responsible and aware of the discrimination that his people face. He stays calm and silent throughout the time the white man screams at him to get off the bench and is pulled and hit by people, he just responds with a smile when stands victorious as he dares to sit on the bench.
The white man – A white man screams at Karlie to get off the bench symbolizes racism in general. He abused Karlie calling him names and later threatens Karlie to call the police. His threat makes Karlie realize that the man is too weak to do something on his own and swells with pride for winning the first round of the dispute.
The Bench | Literary Technique
Symbolism is used in the story through The bench. The bench that is labeled in white paint as “Europeans Only” symbolizes territory and that each race has its place. It reflects the unjust social structure that causes discrimination between white and black. Karlie feels if he sits on the bench he can challenge the unjust and tackle the struggle against oppression and through this he can achieve his victory against racism.
About the Author
Richard Rive was a literary critic, and college teacher in Cape Town as well as one of the most prominent black writers in South Africa. The story relates to the author’s own life experiences as he was born to colored parents in Cape Town. He grew up in Cape Town and with his scholarship, he attended high school and the University of Cape Town.