Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 1: Hortense Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hortense recalls that her old friend Celia Langley used to daydream about moving to England and living in a house with a doorbell. She told Hortense that she would ring the bell every day. At the time, Hortense couldn’t have imagined that she herself would go to England—but that’s exactly where she is right now. She wishes Celia could see her now, a married woman pressing the doorbell of a tall English house.
Hortense’s reverie and Celia’s fantasy demonstrates their worship for the hallmarks of civilization—such as doorbells—as they are defined by the British. On the other hand, Celia’s ignorance of the purpose of the doorbell—she doesn’t understand that one doesn’t typically ring the bell at one’s own house—shows how arbitrary and ultimately meaningless such hallmarks are.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Hortense rings the bell several times while adjusting her coat and hat. A disheveled English woman eventually answers and doesn’t seem to understand Hortense when she says she’s looking for Gilbert Joseph. Squinting at Hortense’s immense trunk, the woman says that Gilbert was supposed to meet her, but Hortense hasn’t seen him. The woman scampers upstairs to find Gilbert, leaving Hortense in the doorway marveling at the house’s height.  
Hortense’s preoccupation with her accessories contrasts with the Englishwoman’s haphazard attire and her informal, almost rude behavior—leaving Hortense standing in the doorway instead of welcoming her inside.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
In his last letter, Gilbert had assured Hortense that he would meet her at the dock, “waving my hand with joy.” However, when she arrives, no one is there. Hortense waits for two hours, sitting on her trunk. A white woman approaches her and asks if she is Sugar, a woman coming to be her nanny. She’s surprised that Hortense can’t help her find the woman, assuming that all the Jamaicans know each other.
Hortense’s interaction at the dock shows the tendency of white Britons to treat all people of color as a monolithic bloc, even to the extent that it makes their behavior completely irrational—the woman who confronts Hortense would probably never assume that a group of Europeans all know each other simply because of their shared nationality.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Eventually, a dock porter helps Hortense find a taxi. Hortense speaks formal English and won pronunciation prizes as a schoolgirl, so she’s surprised that both men find it difficult to understand her. After some confusion, the taxi driver takes her to the address Gilbert provided in his letter, instructing her along the way how to ring a doorbell.
In this episode, both Hortense and the British man display unrealistic expectations of each other; Hortense realizes that the British don’t behave or even speak exactly as she thought they would, while the British man can’t fathom that Hortense has learned all about Britain, down to its modern conveniences, prior to her arrival.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
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Now, Gilbert comes running down the stairs. Hortense hasn’t seen him for so long that she hardly recognizes him. He’s happy to see her, but she’s furious that he didn’t come to meet her. Sheepishly, he explains that when he first came to the dock, the ship wasn’t there, so he went home to tidy up. Hortense is confused, and she’s unhappy that the Englishwoman is still standing there, listening to their private discussion. She asks Gilbert to bring her trunk to their apartment, but he leaves it in the foyer to the consternation of Hortense and the Englishwoman, whom he addresses as Queenie.
From their first meeting, Hortense and Gilbert start off on a bad foot. Just as Hortense and the taxi driver were fundamentally ignorant of each other’s lives, she and her husband lack understanding, despite their shared nationality. Hortense doesn’t appreciate that Gilbert’s under a lot of pressure as a struggling immigrant, while he doesn’t see that she’s bewildered and unable to navigate this new land alone.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
After climbing many flights of dingy stairs with difficulty, Gilbert proudly shows Hortense a tiny room that smells of gas. Tiredly, Hortense asks him to show her the rest of the apartment so she can lie down, but Gilbert says that “this is it.” Hortense is astonished that she crossed the ocean to live in such a shabby place. However, Gilbert is angry that she doesn’t appreciate what they have, given that a war has just ended, and many houses are completely bombed out. He storms out of the room, leaving her alone.
Hortense is disappointed both in her new husband and her new country. Queenie’s house is nothing like the beautiful home she and Celia imagined, and Gilbert is nothing like the refined spouse she longs for. As the novel progresses, Hortense will reevaluate expectations both of marriage and of her new country.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon