Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 15: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A few days later, Gilbert is enjoying his day off. He’s reading a newspaper on a bench outside the church when he notices that an old man seems to be following him. Gilbert wonders if he’s an inept Nazi spy, or simply a curious man who wants to “feel the hair of a colored man.” Gilbert walks through the fields and the man follows. Frustrated and wondering if the man means to harm him, he finally turns around and politely asks him what he’s doing.
Gilbert has gotten so used to the rudeness of British citizens that he chalks up all strange behavior as a reaction to his race. While this seems funny to him now, as an immigrant, the constant feeling of being out of the ordinary will sometimes threaten to overwhelm him and prevent him from feeling secure in England.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
The man doesn’t respond. Suddenly, a low-flying airplane passes overhead. While Gilbert is startled, the old man throws himself to the muddy ground, terrified. Gilbert realizes that he’s mentally ill, and that he might need help. Gilbert asks the man if he should take him home, and the man nods and leads him to a farmhouse.
The old man’s evident insanity corresponds to the eccentricities of Celia’s mother. Likewise, Gilbert’s compassion and eagerness to help establishes him, like Celia, as an highly positive character.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Gilbert is anxious when he knocks on the door; he’s lived in England long enough to know that most white people are initially afraid of him. However, the attractive woman who answers the door isn’t concerned with him but simply asks, without preamble, where he found the old man. Gilbert explains that he’s been followed the entire afternoon, and the woman explains that “he thinks he knows you.”
The woman’s comment is cryptic—it’s unclear if she’s referring to another Jamaican the old man knows, or if she’s implying that all black people look alike to him. Gilbert’s anxious politeness contrasts with her brash attitude; it’s another reminder that the British aren’t as “civilized” as they’d like their colonial subjects to believe.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
The woman starts to shut the door on Gilbert but he hangs around, “not ready to leave such a pretty woman.” Eventually, worn down by his jokes, she invites him in for tea and introduces herself as Queenie Bligh. The old man is her father-in-law, and his name is Arthur.
In her reappearance here, Queenie is much the same as she is in the novel’s opening—not especially polite, but not displaying the racist behavior that characterizes most of the novel’s white characters.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
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