Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Small Island can help.

Small Island: Chapter 30: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Gilbert finds accommodation with Queenie, he starts searching for a job. With a letter from the labor office, he interviews for a position as a storeman. The employer questions him about the RAF and spends an hour talking about his own time in the armed forces, only to inform Gilbert perfunctorily that he can’t hire him because there are white women working in the factory and “all hell would break loose if the men found you talking to their women.”
When Gilbert was a soldier, he had few problems talking to white women, especially not where the British were concerned. Looking for a job, he’s starting to realize that British attitudes towards soldiers passing through in time of war are very different from their feelings about welcoming immigrants to settle permanently in Britain.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
In another office, a man asks if Gilbert is a Christian; he says yes, even though life in England is severely trying his faith. After praying, the man tells him that his business partner “does not like colored people.” Gilbert encounters similar results in the next five places he visits; sometimes the employers are openly hostile and refuse to even interview him.
Britain doesn’t have America’s explicit segregation policies, but that doesn’t mean Gilbert is treated equally. Rather, it seems British employers are vacillating between guilt about their prejudice (disguised as good manners) and deep fear of people of color, expressed through their hostility. 
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Eventually, Gilbert gets a job as a postman driver. Even though he’s thrilled to be employed, he recognizes the irony of working as a driver yet again. His partner is an old man named Bert who insists on telling him the directions each day but is relatively courteous.
Like Queenie, Bert seems to mean well, but by assuming Gilbert is less capable than an average English man, he’s being patronizing and racist.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
However, on Hortense’s first day in London, Bert gets sick. The other workers refuse to drive with Gilbert, so he has to go to King’s Cross by himself. When he arrives, he’s confused about which packages to take, so he asks a group of workers, but they pretend not to hear him and ask him when he’s “going back to the jungle.” Angry, Gilbert says that he can’t go back because he hasn’t “fucked your wife yet,” but when the men start to push him, he realizes he can’t get into a fight or he’ll lose his job, so he backs down and collects his parcels while the men watch and curse him.
Not only is Gilbert unable to find the professional work he dreamed of when he immigrated, he’s not even safe from humiliation working for the post office. Queenie’s narrative showed the extent to which the British elite discriminates against the working classes; Gilbert’s experience shows that people express their feelings of oppression by seeking out other groups whom they can oppress in turn.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Get the entire Small Island LitChart as a printable PDF.
Small Island PDF
When Gilbert arrives home, having forgotten all about his new wife, he finds Hortense scrubbing their room on her hands and knees. He’s feeling so angry and humiliated that he yells at her to get up, telling her that “no wife of mine will be on her knees in this country.” Hortense points out practically that this is the only way to clean the floor, but Gilbert pleads with her to humor him.
Even though Hortense is often haughty, one of her sterling qualities is that she’s not afraid of hard work. However, at this moment her industriousness reminds Gilbert painfully of the grueling task of getting by in England, which Hortense, as yet, doesn’t even comprehend.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon