Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 39: Bernard Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Thousands of people die in riots in Calcutta following the end of the war. Bernard understands vaguely that Hindus and Muslims are fighting over who will take power once India gains independence from Britain, but to him it seems absurd to think of “that ragged bunch of illiterates wanting to run their own country.” He believes a British presence is the only thing maintaining order in India.
Bernard, largely ignorant of the political situation in India, is using the ravages caused by colonialism to as evidence to justify British dominance. While his reasoning seems obviously illogical, it exemplifies the difficulty of combatting prejudice in people who are unable or unwilling to understand the nuances of a particular political situation.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
The men in the unit are disgruntled, resenting that they’ve been trucked to Calcutta to bulk up a shoddy British peacekeeping operation, that rations are inadequate, and that Pierpont has been meaninglessly court-martialed. The men decide to have a forbidden meeting. Bernard attends, but only because Maxi wants him to and because the meeting is in his room.
Through the meeting, the soldiers try to exert control over a situation in which they feel powerless and oppressed; in this way, they’re similar to colonial subjects all over the world resisting domination by the British elite, although they’re ironically unaware of the feelings they share with the people they scorn.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Although Pierpont is no longer part of the unit, the meeting makes Bernard remember how much he disliked him. Pierpont habitually refers to him as Pop because of his age, and teases him for being married and faithful to his wife. He constantly brags about his sexual exploits and gives Bernard unsolicited and crude advice about his sex life.
Pierpont’s teasing plays on some of Bernard’s biggest insecurities—his fear of being ridiculed, and his feeling of inadequacy within his marriage. His antipathy to the meeting is largely caused by his personal dislike of Pierpont, just as his racial prejudices are often informed by his personal fears.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
The meeting organizers keep the room dark so that no one will be able to tattle on the others later. Different men argue about what they should do, with some complaining that the soldiers are just being used to “prop up the British empire” and others advocating for a strike. Bernard retorts that he’s proud to be a member of the British Empire and “represent decency.” This sentiment is unpopular, and everyone else jeers at him. Angry, Bernard storms out into the sticky night air.
The men’s different opinions represent, in a microcosm, the dissatisfaction with British policies and domestic unrest that outlasts the war. While Britain tries to present itself as an ideal, perfectly “civilized” society, it’s clear that many of its own citizens are uncertain as to the fairness of British policies, as least insofar as they disadvantage them personally.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
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