Eventually, the lieutenant releases Bernard from prison and demobilizes him. Nothing is left of the barracks when Bernard walks by it, and he remembers the eight men who died in the fire. One liked to recount the story of a tiger he killed, while another was part of the D Day invasion. With a few others, Bernard had completed a difficult mission to retrieve a plane from a river.
Bernard’s recollections are a reminder of the soldiers’ humanity, especially when their officers are eager to view them as nameless troublemakers. It’s ironic that he’s capable of such empathy but can’t extend it to people who are different from him, like the Josephs.
Before his ship leaves, Bernard has to wait a few days in Calcutta. The city is still recovering from violence, but the rubbish and corpses that once lined the streets are gone. In the market, Bernard encounters Pierpont; with his usual crude bravado, the soldier invites Bernard to accompany him to a brothel, telling him that even Maxi did so before. Furious, Bernard tells him that Maxi died in a fire, and that Pierpont should be in prison, having organized the original strike that sent the whole unit to Calcutta.
When Bernard finds out that Maxi did something of which he doesn’t approve, he reacts with violent denial—his desire for simplicity and clarity means he can’t accommodate nuanced situations or flawed human characters. Similarly, when he realizes his marriage to Queenie will never be perfect, he stops trying to change or improve it.
Pierpont protests that the forbidden meeting and Maxi’s death have nothing to do with him, since he hasn’t been with the unit since Calcutta. When Bernard is still angry, Pierpont taunts him for his stint in prison, asking if he was jailed for being a useless soldier. Bernard jumps on him, but the younger man deflects his blows easily. Catching Bernard by the arms, he spits that he was the “laughing-stock” of the unit, and no one except Maxi could stand to be around him.
Pierpont’s taunts are especially cruel because they play into Bernard’s already strong sense of insecurity. While he’s certainly a difficult character and probably deserves some measure of scorn, it’s hard not to sympathize with Bernard given his vast alienation from the men around him. However, it’s also frustrating that Bernard converts his feelings into anger rather than understanding.
Disturbed by this encounter, Bernard does visit a brothel, albeit by himself. Alone in a room with a young prostitute who barely speaks English and calls him “Tommy,” Bernard feels awkward and ashamed. He holds her roughly, and when she appears to enjoy—or pantomimes enjoying—the sex, he forces her to be still. When he’s finished, he realizes the prostitute is no more than a young girl, and that she’s terrified by his violent behavior. Bernard imagines Queenie’s disgust if she could see him at this moment; rather than making him into a hero, he realizes, the war has robbed him of his decency.
This is one of the book’s most disturbing scenes; while Bernard frequently voices hatred of other people, here he actually commits an act of violence against a defenseless girl. His action is especially disturbing because it can never really be resolved; even if Bernard were to completely change his behavior and redeem himself, he’s still irremediably harmed the prostitute and, as he realizes, degraded his own character.
Bernard tries to apologize to the girl, but she cringes away from him. In desperation, he starts sobbing, and she comes to him and comforts him; but when he composes himself and speaks normally, she retreats again. Bernard throws money at the “wretched whore” and leaves.
As he does in most situations, when Bernard recognizes his own anxiety or culpability, he responds with self-righteousness and justifications; by calling the woman a “whore” he tries to blame the debacle on her, even though he’s clearly at fault.