Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 2: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After leaving the room to fetch Hortense’s trunk, Gilbert finds Queenie downstairs. She says that Hortense is a funny name, but he points out it’s no stranger than Queenie. The trunk is much too heavy for Gilbert to lift, so he knocks on the door of one of the house’s other lodgers, Winston. Winston’s twin brother, Kenneth, answers. Gilbert likes Winston but mistrusts Kenneth, who’s always trying to embroil him in get-rich-quick schemes and frequently comes to stay with his brother when his own landlady, Noreen, kicks him out.
In his exchange with Queenie, Gilbert points out that ideas of what is normal and what is “funny” are always relative, based on cultural conditioning rather than objective fact. In many episodes throughout the novel, characters’ inability to embrace and respect different conceptions of normality will prevent them from living or working together cohesively.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
The two men struggle up the stairs with the trunk, only to find Hortense haughtily directing them where to place it. In typical Jamaican fashion, Kenneth interrogates Hortense on her family and background, while it becomes clear to Gilbert that Hortense dislikes the man. Gilbert finally gets Kenneth to leave, but straight away starts arguing with Hortense about where to store the trunk, which occupies almost all the space in the tiny room.
Instead of being comforted by the presence and familiar behavior of a man from her native land, Hortense’s reaction shows that she’s already reluctant to identify as a Jamaican. She is eager to begin her new life as a British citizen, even if it means turning away from her background.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
In order to make the room warmer, Gilbert tries to turn on the gas, but he can’t find money for the gas meter. In truth, he’d been asleep when he was supposed to meet Hortense, having just finished a twelve hour shift at work. He hasn’t cleaned the room, and he has to search the bed for coins, leading the sharp-eyed Hortense to conclude that he had in fact slept through the arrival of her ship.
Gilbert’s fumbling with the gas meter underscores the haphazard conditions the new couple is forced to endure. While Hortense’s behavior often makes her seem oblivious, she’s actually very intelligent, as her keen observation shows here.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Gilbert is embarrassed that he’s so unprepared. When Hortense runs her hand along the mantel, he’s chastened to see that her glove is blackened by dust. He finally convinces her to stop inspecting the room and sit down for a cup of tea. He explains to her that Queenie, whose husband died in the war, owns the house and lives there as well. Hearing that she’s single, Hortense asks suspiciously how friendly Gilbert is with her; he answers carefully that she was kind to him during the war, and he was lucky to find someone who would rent to a “coloured boy.”
While Gilbert isn’t lying about his relationship with Queenie, he doesn’t tell Hortense that he was initially very attracted to Queenie and pursued her briefly, as he’ll relate later in his own narrative. Hortense and Gilbert both come into their marriage harboring feelings for other people, which informs their unromantic and sometimes unkind behavior toward each other.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
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Gilbert tells Hortense that, instead of a real kitchen, she’ll have to cook their meals on the tiny gas burner in their room. Overwhelmed, Hortense excuses herself to the lavatory, but wanders mistakenly into the room of another lodger, a heavily made-up woman named Jean. Gilbert has to go down and help her, since Jean can’t understand her English either. Hortense blames her embarrassment on Gilbert and his faulty directions.
Hortense is understandably bewildered and upset, but she’s wrong to blame Gilbert, who’s trying to help her. For much of the novel, Hortense will take out her frustrations with life in England on her husband.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
When Hortense returns, Gilbert explains that she can also use the chamber pot under the bed. However, he holds it up to show her without realizing it’s full from the previous night, and some of its contents spill onto the floor and Hortense’s shoes. Frustrated, Gilbert empties the chamber pot into the sink, right on top of the cups from which they’ve just drunk tea. Hortense shrieks that he wants her to live like an animal, and Gilbert retorts that she’ll have to get used to it, and that she’s so new to England she doesn’t even appreciate how lucky she is.
This scene is so absurd that it’s almost funny, even though it represents the state of Hortense and Gilbert’s marriage. Throughout the novel, the author will use unsparing descriptions of small indignities like this to illuminate the comedy and sadness that exist side by side in immigrant life.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon