Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 16: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Walking through town a few days later, Gilbert encounters some drunk American soldiers who demand that he salute them, as they are his “superiors.” He curses them and walks away, only to run into Queenie, who greets him politely. She tells him she’s lost Arthur again, and Gilbert asks if he can buy her a cup of tea while she waits for him to turn up.
Unaccustomed to this overt white supremacy, Gilbert is very confrontational in situations like these. The repressed hate displayed by the Americans, and his refusal to bow to it, foreshadow his imminent disaster in the movie house.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
However, when he arrives with Queenie at the tea shop and sits down, Gilbert is disturbed to notice three white American GIs glaring at him from a nearby table, and worries that they’ll make a scene. Gilbert is “learning to hate” the Americans above any other army. He feels the war he’s fighting isn’t against the Germans, but against the humiliations inflicted by the Americans. Meanwhile, Queenie is unaware of the threat posed by the soldiers at the neighboring table, and chats away gaily.
Gilbert’s comparison of the Germans and the Americans shows that for him, the enemy is always racism, no matter which army displays it. Importantly, Gilbert says he’s “learning” to hate—this is a reminder that hate and prejudice aren’t natural, but rather created and enforced by social codes.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Gilbert listens uneasily as Queenie tells him that she’s been staying with her parents in the country, but is planning on taking Arthur back to London, despite the danger of bombing; Arthur doesn’t get along with her gruff father. Queenie offers Gilbert a bite of biscuit from her hand, which he accepts. Behind her back, the American soldier menacingly draws a finger across his throat.
The contrast between Queenie’s gaiety and the soldier’s menace is another reminder that race relations aren’t preordained—they’re deeply dependent on the social conditions under which different characters live. Episodes like this implicitly argue against the idea that segregation is natural and unavoidable, which the Americans in Virginia hold.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Suddenly, Queenie sees Arthur on the street and rushes out of the store. Gilbert stands, certain that he won’t be able to leave without a fight. The Americans get up as well, but the waitress fiercely informs them that they have to stay at their table and wait for their eggs. Cowed, they remain at their table while Gilbert slips out the door. Queenie invites him to see a film with her and Arthur.
What seems like a dangerous situation is suddenly and almost comically resolved. While the waitress’s intervention restores peace and levity to the afternoon, the lingering sense of menace foreshadows what’s about to happen in the movie house.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
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