Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 4: Hortense Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Sometime later, Hortense finally leaves Savannah-La-Mar to attend teacher-training college in Kingston, catching a bumpy ride in the newspaper’s van. Mr. Philip and Miss Ma are completely indifferent to her departure; they seem to have forgotten that her father is the famous Lovell Roberts. Only Miss Jewel puts on her best clothes to bid Hortense farewell, giving her granddaughter all her savings and an embroidered handkerchief.
While Alberta thought that giving her daughter to the Roberts family would improve her life, the family is hardly attending to Hortense’s wellbeing; instead, it’s Miss Jewel, the one vestige of her mother’s presence, who helps Hortense. This demonstrates that Hortense’s fair skin is far from the blessing it initially appears to be.
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In Kingston, well-dressed and prim girls are arriving from all over the island to study at the prestigious school. They wait nervously in the school hall until the staff enter. All the teachers are white, but their skin is blotchy pink from living on the sunny island. The principal, Miss Morgan, has a calm and gentle voice, but her gargoyle’s smile makes Hortense fear her.
The white teaching staff shows that the most respected education in Jamaica comes from colonial authorities. By attending college, Hortense is subscribing to the narrative of colonial superiority and preparing to transmit that narrative to a new generation of students.
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That night, Hortense dreams that Michael is holding out his hand to her with a scorpion on his palm. Hortense wants to warn him that he’s in danger, but someone is holding her wrist, and she can’t talk. Waking up suddenly, she finds that an older girl really is holding her wrist. The girl drags her out of bed and down the hall with a crowd of other girls. When they reach the bathroom, the older girl strips off her own nightgown and Hortense’s. Freezing water streams from showerheads in the ceiling, and all the girls scream while they bathe. The older girl is Celia Langley, a third-year student who takes Hortense under her wing.
Even though Michael probably never cared for her as she does for him, Hortense still feels deeply protective of him. However, the sudden interruption of her dream shows that her feelings for Michael will now have to take a backseat to her own personal development. While Hortense always tries to be neat and proper, the frenzied group shower on her first day shows she has to get used to proximity and friendship with other people.
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At night, Celia sits on Hortense’s bed and knits socks for soldiers while the two girls gossip. Celia advises her on the classes she’ll take and how to appease her teachers. She even coaches Hortense on her recitation assignments.
Celia is Hortense’s first friend, and for the first time in her life it seems she’s achieving a sense of belonging—under the older girl’s protection she feels like an integral part of the college, rather than a disregarded accessory.
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Soon, Hortense becomes an apprentice teacher at a government school. Her first class has sixty pupils, and they’re rowdy, dirty, and distracted. Hortense can’t even get them to pay attention or prevent them from stealing her pencils. While the children mock her, one of Hortense’s own teachers watches her flounder from the back of the room and vaguely advises her to “maintain better discipline among your students.”
Hortense’s first internship illuminates the vast difference between the Ryder’s school, which caters to rich and light-skinned children, and the underfunded institutions that serve everyone else. However, Hortense seems unconcerned with the racism that’s obviously at work in determining the quality of children’s education; she objects to her environment mostly because it’s difficult and unpleasant.
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One afternoon, Celia picks Hortense up from school. At first, her friend looks sad, but when she sees Hortense she cheers up and announces that the RAF soldiers are parading through the city before the leave for England. Both girls are eager to see the parade, as they’ve spent a lot of time spying on the soldiers through the fence of their barracks and knitting garments for them to take from the front. They stand among a crowd of women watching the soldiers, who are mostly young boys.
The RAF parade is one of the first indicators that, as part of the British Empire, Jamaica is fighting a war. While Hortense feels like a citizen of the British Empire as much as she does a citizen of Jamaica, in her daily life she’s largely alienated from the empire’s policies and concerns.
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Hortense wonders aloud why so many men have to fight, and Celia responds gravely that if Hitler wins the war, he’ll reinstate slavery. Hortense thinks to herself that Celia, with her dark skin, is right to fear Hitler, but that “no one would think to enchain” her, with her “honey” complexion. Besides, Hortense comforts herself, everyone knows the British anthem that says “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Here, Hortense’s reaction shows how completely ignorant she is of the racism she’ll face once she immigrates to England. Despite her previous observation of the Ryders, who view all black people as a homogenous bloc, she believes that non-Jamaicans will see her as superior because of her light skin. Moreover, she actually seems to believe she’s entitled to the privileges that superiority entails.
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Related Quotes
Women call out to soldiers they know; Celia wonders aloud which ones are wearing her socks. She tells Hortense dreamily that one day she’ll move to England and have a house with a doorbell. Suddenly, a tall woman wearing two dresses and a dirty wig walks toward them through the crowd, calling Celia’s name. Hortense is confused, and Celia dismayed, but the woman doesn’t notice their consternation. She takes Celia’s arm and examines the parade closely, looking for a particular man. Hortense can tell from her looks that the woman is Celia’s mother; as she exhorts her mother to be quieter, Celia is too embarrassed to look her friend in the eye.
As aspiring teachers and professionals, Hortense and Celia are both deeply committed to maintaining the British propriety their teachers instill. With her unkempt attire and erratic behavior, Celia’s mother strikingly disregards these dictates. Therefore, she’s embarrassing not just on a personal level but because she prevents Celia from fulfilling the ideal of colonial “civilization” to which she aspires.
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Suddenly, Celia’s mother lurches away from her daughter and into the parade. She clings to a young boy and yells to Celia that “this is your daddy.” The crowd jeers, but Celia, trying to disentangle her mother from the confused airman, is humiliated. Eventually, Celia’s mother runs away from the parade. Celia and Hortense have to chase her and escort her home against her will.
It’s notable that Celia doesn’t try to distance herself from her mother. Even though she’s embarrassed, she’s more worried about her mother’s safety and dignity than her own humiliation. Celia’s altruism contrasts with the narcissism Hortense often displays.
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When she returns to her college, Hortense is summoned to Miss Morgan’s office. Hortense is sure that she’s in trouble for running in public or consorting with a lunatic. However, Miss Morgan gives her a letter from Miss Ma and gently informs her that Michael’s plane has been lost in England. At first, Hortense doesn’t understand that this means he’s probably dead; even when Miss Morgan explains the circumstances to her, she insists that he will soon turn up. Interpreting Hortense’s behavior as laudable British stoicism, Miss Morgan assures her that Michael has died a hero in the battle against the Germans.
Hortense’s refusal to acknowledge Michael’s probable death exemplifies the stubborn disregard to reality she often displays. Moreover, Miss Morgan’s reaction, and the platitudes with which she comforts Hortense (who’s already shown she doesn’t care much about fighting the Germans) is an example of how members of Jamaican and British communities chronically misunderstand each other.
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