Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 14: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After training, Gilbert’s regiment is dispersed throughout the country. With other British volunteers, Gilbert works as a driver and coal shifter, transferring coal from trains to army bases. One day, an officer orders him to drive to a nearby American base and retrieve some British shock absorbers which had mistakenly been delivered there and which the Americans refused to deliver themselves. However, when Gilbert presents himself at the base, the American officers retreat into their office, where he hears them say that since he’s black, they can’t send him into the base to collect the items. The officer says that the British sergeant sent a black soldier on purpose, just to annoy him.
Not only is Gilbert assigned menial labor because of his race, he realizes he’s being used as a pawn in petty power struggles between American and British officers. Here, he’s humiliated not just by the Americans, but by his own British commanding officer, who purposely sent him into this disturbing situation. While the British haven’t institutionalized racism as the Americans have, prejudice still operates within the RAF in subtle but important ways.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
When the officers emerge, Gilbert politely pretends not to have heard anything. The officer won’t let him go to the mess, but brings him something to eat. Then he dismisses Gilbert, telling him that, due to a mix-up, the parts are already on their way to the British base. Gilbert understands that his own officer sent him on this errand because doing so would force the Americans to deliver the parts themselves, rather than allowing a black man on the base.
It’s especially notable that the officers don’t think Gilbert can hear them or see through their thinly veiled lies. Their charade suggests both that they’re ashamed of their racist society when confronted by someone who doesn’t live within it, and that they truly don’t think Gilbert has the mental capacities of a white soldier.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Driving back to the base, Gilbert sees two African-American GIs—the first black people he’s seen in some time—and offers them a ride. They’re astounded that he’s a British subject, having never even heard of the Caribbean. The Americans, Levi and Jon, are on their first leave in months, and have dates set up with two women from Lincoln. However, they have to meet the women in Nottingham because Lincoln is reserved for white GIs until the next week. Levi and Jon can’t go there without risking trouble from white soldiers.
While all three men are black, Gilbert and the American GIs have lived vastly different lives. Gilbert is startled and frustrated by his treatment on the American base, but Jon and Levi talk casually about even more appalling practices. Gilbert feels out of place among the white officers who use them for their own ends or the black soldiers so vastly different from him.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Gilbert is astounded that the American army has taken segregation this far, and asks his passengers if it makes them angry. However, Levi and Jon say calmly that it’s the only way of life they’ve ever known. Anyway, life as a soldier is much freer than American society; at home, neither of them had ever spoken to a white person before, but here, they’re dating two white women. However, Levi is shocked when Gilbert tells them he shares a room with seven white men, asking how he can sleep with them around.
Levi and Jon’s comments demonstrate how absolute American segregation policies are. It’s also interesting that, while life in the army provides the Americans an unusual amount of freedom, it’s been a highly restrictive experience for Gilbert. As Levi’s shock shows, racism encourages both the oppressors and the oppressed to consider the other as irremediably dangerous.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
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