Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 12: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
With his regiment, Gilbert arrives at a makeshift training camp based in a Yorkshire holiday resort. Gilbert and his roommates, Hubert, Fulton, and James, are astounded that British people vacation here, because it’s unbelievably cold and gray. They spend all day on seemingly meaningless drills, like running through freezing fields in their underwear. At night, the men seal the cracks in their cabin with spare clothes to preserve heat, but the bullying Sergeant Thwaites sometimes forces them to open the windows, telling them that “cold air keeps you alert.”
Just as Hortense learned to sing hymns about shepherds in idyllic fields, Gilbert probably grew up imagining that Britain was a paradise. Seeing that it’s not, if only on a physical level, is his first step to dismantling his beliefs about Britain’s superiority to its colonies.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
On their first day off, Gilbert, James, Fulton, and Hubert walk into the nearest village, looking for a bar. Gilbert notices that all the locals are looking at them, just as his childhood dog used to examine geckos that passed through his yard. Eventually, some of the braver villagers approach them, asking where they’re from and if they speak English. Fulton even flirts with an attractive woman before a middle-aged man shepherds her away.
The English seem woefully ignorant about people of color, but while their curiosity makes them rude, they don’t display the same ingrained prejudice that characterized the American soldiers. At least initially, this a hopeful sign, suggesting that the men can live in England without the barrier of racism that made America so unpalatable.
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Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Explaining his relationship to England, Gilbert says the “mother country” is like a beloved relation named Mother living far away. Children like Gilbert learn that Mother is refined and mannerly, and that she takes care of little children just like the Lord. One day, Mother is “troubled, she need your help,” so men like Gilbert leave everything they know to hurry to her aid. However, when they arrive, they don’t find the beautiful and cultured relative of their imagination but a battered and dirty old woman who doesn’t even know who they are. Just like the imaginary relative, wartime England seems squalid and debased to the Jamaican soldiers. The people are rough, uneducated and rude; a college educated soldier wonders “how many white people come to speak so bad.”
Gilbert’s analogy is striking—it encompasses both his feelings of closeness and worship of the Mother Country (feelings very similar to Hortense’s) and his astonishment when he actually sees what Britain is like. It’s notable that he hasn’t yet commented on the way the British treat him, just the society’s general characteristics. For his whole life, Gilbert aspired to be “refined and mannerly” like the Mother Country, but once he arrives, he realizes that by their own standards, he’s a lot more civilized than most of the British.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Related Quotes
For his part, Gilbert is chagrined that while he’s known since childhood minute details of British geography and culture, and can talk intelligently about British railways and government, the average British soldier has never heard of Jamaica and thinks it’s in Africa. Moreover, most British people they meet assume the Jamaican soldiers grew up in “jungles and swinging through trees.” Gilbert knows that these people would not spring to Jamaica’s defense as he has rushed to help Britain.
Here, Gilbert begins to express the disillusionment and bitterness that intensify as he spends more time in Britain. It’s very clear that not only is the Mother Country much less “refined” than her colonial subjects believe, she doesn’t have a mutually beneficial relationship with her colonies. Instead, the relationship is an exploitative one.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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