Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 17: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Queenie is excited to see a movie starring Clark Gable. The usher escorts them into the theater, but while she gives Queenie and Arthur seats in the front, she tells Gilbert that he has to sit in the gallery. Both Queenie and Gilbert are confounded, as there are plenty of empty seats. The usher tells him that all the “coloreds” have to sit in the back, and Gilbert knows this is because the white Americans refuse to sit next to them. He becomes angry, saying that Jim Crow is for Americans and “we do not do this in England.” Misunderstanding, the usher responds that if Jim Crow is black, he’ll have to sit in the back.
It’s important that Gilbert angrily talks about what “we” do in England; it shows that, as a colonial citizen, he identifies deeply with Britain. His loyalty and even pride in a country that discounts and discriminates against him is poignant—an especially evocative moment highlighting the injustice he faces every day. Moreover, Gilbert’s language demonstrates his sense of being torn between Jamaica and England, not able to belong fully to one or the other.
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By this point, the quarrel has attracted the attention of other customers. An American derisively shouts for Gilbert to do what he’s told, and Queenie shouts back, supported by some other British women. From the back of the movie house, black American GIs start heckling their white counterparts. The manager runs into the theater and orders everyone to leave.
There’s a notable contrast between American and British reactions. While the British aren’t exactly standing up for the black soldiers, they’re a lot less prejudiced than the American GIs, as they haven’t been preconditioned by a completely segregated society.
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The American GIs begin fighting, trampling civilians in their haste to get at each other. Queenie grabs Arthur and Gilbert and hustles them towards the exit, but Gilbert soon loses her in the rush. One woman hits him with her purse, accusing him of starting all the trouble. Outside, civilians struggle to safety while soldiers taunt each other from opposite sides of the street.
Ostensibly a dispute between soldiers, the fighting quickly escalates to involve civilians who can’t defend themselves, demonstrating that racial tension can’t be ignored or handled by blanket measures like segregation. Addressed in this haphazard manner, it quickly bleeds into all parts of the society.
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Just as it seems the fight might peter out, the American Military Police arrive and attack the black GIs with boots and batons. A white GI jumps on Gilbert, and the two men wrestle. When Gilbert extricates himself, he sees another white man bashing a black soldier’s head against a wall.
Gilbert’s comment that he was “learning to hate” the Americans now seems like a premonition. In all his time at the RAF, this street fight is the closest he’s come to combat, and it’s ironic that he’s not fighting the Germans but his own ostensible allies.
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A gunshot sounds, and the entire crowd stills. Gilbert makes his way toward the sound; he hears Queenie screaming Arthur’s name. When he reaches the corner, he sees Arthur splayed out on the ground, dead, and Queenie distraught and hitting the policeman who shot him. Gilbert tries to go to her, but another policeman warns him to stay away.
Arthur’s death is especially poignant and meaningful because his insanity and old age rendered him completely harmless and innocent. His murder shows that racism doesn’t just affect those who inflict it or those who suffer for it; it also seeps into the lives of those, like Arthur, who seem to live outside it.
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