Sunday, 19 May 2013

Defending Bernard Bligh

So exam season has meant that it's been a while since I've published a post, although this one has been sitting in my drafts for about a month and a half now. While I should be revising for my history exam I find the 60s inescapably boring, and so this is my break, although it's a little ironic that I'm now remembering I originally read this book (which is Andrea Levy's 'Small Island' by the way) as background to the history course. Okay, so this post now counts as revision...

I'm kind of questioning why I'm writing this post since Bernard Bligh, who I guess you could call the antagonist of the plot,  is such a hated character. I mean he definitely has nasty qualities, but whilst reading the book I couldn't help but sympathise with his character, perhaps more than any of the others. (Oh, and there will be **SPOILERS** in this post).

'Small Island' is set in 1948, although the majority of the novel takes place in parts grippingly named 'before', and it tells the story of two married couples, Bernard and Queenie (English) and Gilbert and Hortense (Jamaican). The racial tensions of the post-war era provide the back-bone of the story and it is true that Bernard, on the face of it, is simply a racist character with nothing more to say for himself than to swear at those with a different colour skin to himself.

Although this post is defending his character, I think it's necessary to point out immediately that I do not sympathise with him as a racist - his behaviour towards both Gilbert and Hortense was disgusting and thank God the majority of people are not like that today, although I know they certainly do exist.

However, I'm not completely sure why I've heard some people say they absolutely hate him. I mean, the things that go wrong are definitely not all his fault. And this brings me swiftly on to Queenie Bligh. I hated this woman. But then it seems that most other people I've seen who have read the book are firmly and absolutely on her side. I'm sorry but, in my book, cheating on your husband who is away at war not only once, but TWICE with a man you barely know is pretty much unforgivable. And yes, there will be people who say Bernard pushed her away, but really he was just being himself and not liking your husbands pale neck is not a good enough reason to cheat on him. Full stop. No question.

I think I would have less of a problem with Queenie if her dislike of her husband had stemmed from a changed personality after war or something like that, but it's pretty obvious she never liked him. I mean her aunt's death and the threat of having to move back in with her awful mother are the only reasons for her wishing to marry Bernard. He was simply the best of two apparently bad options. I guess that's why I sympathise with Bernard, because the person he loves will never love him back. So this made me think what really makes Bernard all that different from Les Miserables' Eponine? Eponine has a league of devoted supporters who sympathise with her character because Marius does not and will never love her back. To me this story holds a striking resemblance to Bernard's. Although it is true that Bernard has his bad elements - the most predominant of which is his racism - to be fair, Eponine also has bad characteristics, the main of which is that for the majority of the time at the barricade Eponine is there to see Marius killed and then die herself. An element which fans of hers seem to overlook all too often. So all I'm asking is what's the difference between Eponine and Bernard and why should Bernard be hated where Eponine is adored. I just find it quite ironic that opinions of Bernard are somewhat discriminative in themselves, making readers of the book no different from Bernard himself in some ways. 

At the end of the novel it emerges that Bernard would be prepared to look after and care for Queenie's illegitimate child as a father and, although there is probably an element of truth in the mother's protestations that Bernard would highlight the child's mixed race in every argument they had, it seems to me that Bernard really wanted to carry out this duty. It is implied earlier in the novel that Bernard wants children but Queenie just isn't getting pregnant. So for Bernard to get home from war to find his father dead and his wife pregnant with another man's child would surely only add to his feeling inadequacy as it can only be assumed that Bernard is infertile. In this way I really think each and every person can begin to sympathise with Bernard's character, on which ever level this might be, just because it's part of being human to experience self doubt and feel worthless and ultimately unnecessary, without purpose. 

So for that reason I really do sympathise with Bernard as I think there's an element of all of us within him. And to be honest that includes the bad parts as there really is bad in each of us, whether we choose to reveal that to other people or not. It doesn't have to be as extreme as being racist, although I think Bernard was likely only a child of his time, but  even nasty little thoughts that are there within us and which we hate ourselves for later show that nobody can be wholly and completely 'good'. Consequently, I think someone needed to stand up for Bernard and show him as the representation of all humans that he really is, much as we would all like to deny this.