Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 49: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Someone knocks on the door, announcing himself as Winston, but when Gilbert answers, he’s sure it’s actually Kenneth, because the man doesn’t bother to greet Hortense and immediately starts complaining about Bernard. Queenie’s husband, he says, has insulted him and demanded that he vacate his room before the next morning. Kenneth has already had a bad day at work, because he just found out he has to pay taxes out of his hard-earned wages.
While the Winston/Kenneth mix-up is often funny, it couldn’t be happening at a worse time than right now, when the lodgers’ security in the house seems at risk. Gilbert’s frustration emphasizes that the novel’s climax is close at hand.
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Because of his bad mood, Kenneth says, he’s impolite to Bernard when he gets home, not realizing that Bernard is actually the owner of the house. When Bernard comes to his door and starts shouting, Kenneth pushes him, and he falls over. Moreover, Kenneth admits he’s insulted Bernard by saying that Queenie is attracted to black men. Gilbert is aghast, knowing that his behavior will have repercussions for all of them.
The taboo on miscegenation is deeply insulting to black men, because it indicates that some women are “too good” for them. Moreover, it insults white women by turning them into pawns through which men express control and domination.
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Gilbert recognizes in Bernard his own bewilderment, their shared inability to determine “which way is forward,” and what they should do. He knows that with Bernard’s return, they will have to find somewhere else to live. Kenneth suggests they gather some friends and beat up Bernard, but Gilbert rejects this plan and says he’ll talk to Queenie.
It’s interesting that, while Bernard does everything possible to distance himself from Gilbert, even when the English man is actively inconveniencing him, Gilbert is empathetic enough to realize that they’re both experiencing the same feelings of indecision and uncertainty.
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Related Quotes
Kenneth asks if Hortense will share the dinner she’s cooking, but when he actually smells it, he departs in a hurry. Lying, Gilbert tells her the food looks lovely and crunches his way through a half-cooked plate of rice while Hortense berates him for letting such an uncouth man in their room.
Gilbert’s willingness to compromise—or at least endure bad dinners—in order to improve his marriage is another way in which he’s much different than Bernard, who refuses to yield to Queenie in any regard.
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Thinking that Hortense might be worried by the news of Bernard, Gilbert tells her not to fret, and that he will prevent them from being evicted. Hortense smirks and informs him loftily that she will soon be a teacher in a good school. Bernard would only be helping her if he evicted them, because such a shabby apartment isn’t fit for a teacher like her.
Here, Hortense’s smugness contrasts with Gilbert’s forbearance. It also exposes her ignorance—even after some time in England her expectations are completely out of line with reality.
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