Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 18: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In 1947, Gilbert returns to Jamaica. Little boys stand on the dock to greet them and a band plays. In his luggage, Gilbert carries newspaper clippings from the riot in which Arthur was killed. The day after the incident, Gilbert was transferred to another city; although he wrote to Queenie several times, she never answered.
The nature of the “incident” to which Queenie referred is now painfully clear. Queenie’s refusal to talk about it or see Gilbert afterward mirrors the tactics of denial and evasion which Bernard will frequently display, linking Queenie to her husband even though the two of them are frequently at odds.
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Gilbert has had to wait two years since the war’s end for a ship back to Jamaica. By this time, he’s tired of barracks life and British food; he wants to be among his family and in a familiar community. However, when he arrives in Kingstown, he realizes how tiny Jamaica is, and says to himself that “we are small islanders too.”
When he enlisted in the RAF, Gilbert felt cosmopolitan compared to men from other islands. After his time in England, Gilbert feels that Jamaica is provincial in comparison. His new disappointment in his native country causes him to turn to England again, despite his ambivalence about his treatment there.
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Related Quotes
Moreover, Gilbert finds his family scattered. Four sisters got married and immigrated to America, while the other three moved to Canada. His brother Lester is working in construction in Chicago. Gilbert's mother pities him for being stuck in Jamaica. She’s given up her cake business and spends her time decorating hats with her sister in preparation for a long visit to her children in America. Meanwhile, Gilbert's father passes the days dozing on the porch in a drunken daze.
Gilbert’s familial diaspora magnifies the feelings of displacement that began when he stepped off the ship. Notably, Gilbert’s feelings mirror Queenie’s neighbor’s assertion that he no longer feels “at home” in his native land; however, Gilbert doesn’t blame his feelings on other people or address them through prejudice.
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Elwood teases Gilbert for returning, saying it’s obvious that he was right when he said it’s better to stay in Jamaica than go to the “mother country.” Gilbert doesn’t tell his cousin that he did try to stay in England, applying to study law through the military employment agency. However, the officials considered such a career “high above his station” and offered to train him as a baker instead.
While Gilbert used to be confidently opposed to Elwood’s views, he’s not sure what to think of his cousin now. Gilbert’s ambivalence shows the erosion of his ingrained trust in the Mother Country.
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Elwood has an “obstinate faith in Jamaica,” and insists that black Jamaicans need to control their own country and government. Meanwhile, he tells Gilbert he’s planning on starting a beekeeping business and convinces Gilbert to invest in it.
Elwood’s faith in Jamaica contrasts with Gilbert’s lack of certainty, both in his native country and in England.
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With Elwood, Gilbert takes a stubborn mule named Enid to pick up their new beehives from a friend. After carefully carting the hives home and setting them up in the backyard, Gilbert eats a mango on the verandah. Looking out on the peaceful yard filled with fruit trees and fireflies, Gilbert reflects on the beauty and abundance of his country, thinking that it’s not so bad to be here after all.
This is one of the few moments in which Gilbert feels unequivocally at home, and the author’s uncharacteristically poetic description demonstrates the beauty and allure of such moments.
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However, during dinner Enid escapes from her enclosure and attacks the beehives, causing the bees to swarm her and the house. Despite Elwood’s efforts to contain the damage, Enid dies from bee stings and the bees escape, taking all Gilbert’s savings with them. Ever the optimist, Elwood wants to look for the bees in the forest, but Gilbert dismisses the idea. He’s depressed by their failure and tell his cousin that “we cannot get a break in this place.” In contrast, he says, opportunity is “ripe” in places like England and America. Elwood says that Gilbert wants to leave Jamaica because Gilbert’s father is a white man.
The sudden disaster shows the transient and ephemeral nature of Gilbert’s contentment. While life in Jamaica is certainly full of obstacles, Gilbert’s argument that opportunity abounds in England seems like wishful thinking, born from a desire to feel at home somewhere; there’s little evidence from his difficult experiences to back it up.
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In this midst of this dilemma, Gilbert meets Celia Langley, whose adoration makes him feel valuable and excited again. He entertains himself by telling her wildly exaggerated stories about England. He’s frightened of her friend, Hortense, who always seems to disdain him no matter how good his stories are.
While Gilbert and Celia’s relationship is more conventional than his eventual marriage, it’s also unhealthy, predicated on a charade of bravado rather than mutual understanding.
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Given Hortense’s evident dislike, Gilbert is shocked when she offers to lend him the money for passage to England. Gilbert has no desire to marry her, and when he retires to his house to think over the idea, he weeps under his favorite tree. In the end, he decides even this unpleasant bargain is worth it to get back to England.
While Hortense appears stubborn and ungrateful at the beginning of the book, here Gilbert seems even more reluctant to embark on a life together. His extreme hostility towards Hortense demonstrates how much work they have ahead of them to make their marriage viable.
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