Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 37: Bernard Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bernard is relieved to know that everyone at home is safe, especially Queenie. He fondly imagines her at the kitchen, freed from the frightening nights in the bomb shelter. However, he assumes it will be years before the war on the eastern front is won, so he’s shocked when Maxi brings him the news that the Japanese have surrendered. Not knowing what exactly it is, the men in the unit speculate on the “atom bomb” that has thwarted their powerful enemy.
Bernard’s immediate concern for Queenie’s safety is a reminder that he does care for her, even if he rarely expresses it. It’s also interesting that he safeguards fond memories of their daily life—in this respect, he’s much different than his wife, who evaluates their relationship grimly and ironically.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Everyone in the unit assumes they’ll be home by Christmas, but soon they receive an order to move east, closer to Burma. Prisoners of war are demobilized and sent home before normal troops. Bernard is touched to see the frail and emaciated prisoners returning to safety, barely able to eat food. Bernard feels proud of the Britain’s civilized treatment of its prisoners.
Bernard’s pride is unwarranted, given that he’s never seen any British prisoners and doesn’t know how they’re treated. His reaction demonstrates that he judges Britain’s behavior not based on objective evidence, but rather based on his conviction of Britain’s inherent superiority.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
While no one resents privileges accorded to ex-prisoners, the unit resents that some men with “particular skills” are demobilized quicker than others, mostly builders and plumbers but including (according to rumor) a ballet dancer and upper-class men with good connections. The men who are left behind—mechanics, teachers, and clerks—feel that their skills are no longer valuable to Britain.
This moment touches on Bernard’s feelings of exclusion from British society; it’s a reminder that his anxieties are valid, and that he suffers, to some extent, from class prejudice in his own society. However, while the experience of being excluded makes the Jamaican characters, especially Gilbert, more tolerant, they exacerbate Bernard’s racist and unfeeling behavior.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Communist sympathizers in the unit, whom Bernard disdains as “rabble-rousers,” begin advocating for a strike in order to obtain demobilization. To Bernard’s dismay, Maxi falls in with this group. A strike is organized, and the “ringleaders” strut triumphantly around camp for a few hours, but soon their superiors transfer the unit to Calcutta as punishment for their insurrection.
The conflict between leftist and conservative members of the army is a reminder that Britain isn’t a uniform or even a cohesive society, as colonial characters, like Hortense and Gilbert, believe growing up. It’s also a reminder that working-class men and even some professionals, like Bernard, have limited opportunities even in the society they’ve always considered their own.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
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