Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 51: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Gilbert sees Hortense exit the building; confused and bewildered, she bumps into a large man who yells at her. When he calls to get her attention, she strides in the opposite direction. Trotting behind her, Gilbert asks if she got a job, but Hortense says nothing. He has to grab her just to make her look at him. Hortense asks why he’s poking his nose in her business, and although he’s frustrated at her constant stoniness towards him, he reminds her that she’s his wife, and he has to look after her.
After suffering a huge blow, Hortense has to decide if she wants to face it alone or as part of a married couple. Her instinct is to continue shutting Gilbert out, and it’s only his insistence that causes her to confide in him. It’s admirable that Gilbert acknowledges his responsibilities to her even in times of trouble, when it might be easier to turn away.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hortense begins to cry and tells Gilbert she can’t teach. He guides her to a park bench and puts an arm around her. He thinks one of his white RAF buddies, Charlie Denton, who can’t even recall basic details of British history, and has qualified to teach after just a year of training. He feels “righteous pain” on Hortense’s behalf, and he’s angry with the bystanders who stop to stare at her. He doesn’t want anyone to see them beaten down by this hostile country.
It’s important that Gilbert’s moments of real anger—such as his earlier frustrated walk through the London street—come when he thinks about the pain that immigrant life causes Hortense. This tendency displays his lack of self-pity and the extent to which he cares for his wife, even though she annoys and inconveniences him.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Gilbert offers Hortense a handkerchief which she rejects in favor of her own much cleaner one. She admits that she walked into a cupboard, and Gilbert teases her about the gaffe. Hortense cheers up enough to point out critically that the cupboard was very untidy—not like the neat cupboards to which she’s accustomed in Jamaica.
The only thing that cheers Hortense up is reminding herself that she’s superior to her enemies. While her haughtiness is often frustrating, here it emerges as both endearing and admirable, a source of strength that helps her weather frustration and humiliation.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
To distract Hortense from the catastrophic afternoon, Gilbert takes her on a double-decker bus to sightsee around London. Hortense is excited, pointing out statues and government buildings she’s read about her whole life. Even though the city is no longer new to him, Gilbert sees everything afresh through her eyes. While they’re standing in front of Buckingham Palace, some children run up to Hortense and touch her skin, then run away. Even though Gilbert reassures her that people will always stare at them and they have to get used to it, Hortense adjusts her gloves and becomes stiff and haughty again.
Sightseeing cheers Hortense up because it allows her to feel like a British citizen again, to claim as her own monuments she’s always learned to respect. However, the rude children shatter her momentary sense of belonging, reminding her that some people will always see her as an oddity in England, rather than an ordinary and equal resident.
Themes
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Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
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While they’re drinking tea in a café, Gilbert sees some Jamaican men and greets them. Hortense asks why he talks to the men if he doesn’t really know them, but Gilbert says it’s enough to “know they are from home.” After so much time in London, he’s always pleased and relieved to see another black person.
Hortense doesn’t instinctively identify with other Jamaicans because she’s not used to living in a society where most people are hostile to her. While Gilbert’s sense of solidarity is positive in some respects, it also shows him that life in Britain has forced him to evaluate new people by their race, rather than any assessment of their character.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Hortense wonders what she should do next—she hadn’t once considered the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to teach. Sensing an opening in her tough exterior, Gilbert takes her hand and informs her that he’ll look after her, but Hortense withdraws the hand quickly and Gilbert knows he’s spoken “too firm.”
Hortense often feels like she’s entitled to certain privileges, especially around Gilbert, but her reluctance to be “looked after” highlights her strong sense of responsibility and ambition, admirable qualities that defy the conventions for women of her time, even as she clings to customs and manners.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hortense is outraged when Gilbert proposes she find work as a seamstress—she’s trained to be a teacher, not a manual laborer. Gilbert reminds her that “a teacher you will be, even when you are sewing.” He even confides in her that he wants to study law one day. The words feel foolish coming out of his mouth, but Hortense gently places her hand over his.
Gilbert has never confessed his secret aspiration to another person before. That he does so now, to Hortense, provides a glimmer of hope for their marriage. Her unexpectedly tender response shows that she’s growing to value her husband and be protective towards him, instead of dismissing or scoffing at him.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hortense suggests that she could work as a cook; in fact, her teachers in Jamaica always commended her baking skills. Acquainted with Hortense’s culinary skills, Gilbert tactfully tries to dissuade her from this plan, but ends up teasing her again, and she smiles. Another Jamaican man approaches their table. This one is dirty and shabbily dressed, but when he remarks on the cold weather, Hortense answers him politely.
Normally, Hortense assesses people on their manners and refinement, rather than their race—for example, while Kenneth is Jamaican, Hortense can’t stand him because he behaves improperly. In the face of so much racism, she realizes that she needs the kindness of other people of color, no matter how unlike her they seem, and that they might need hers, too.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon