Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 53: Hortense Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Downstairs, Queenie makes Hortense lock the door and slide a chair under the handle. Hortense begs her to call a doctor, but Queenie just demands to be helped into the bedroom. Sitting on the bed, she sheds her dress and starts unwrapping a large bandage around her torso. Hortense wonders if Bernard—who seems like a violent man—has been beating her, but she soon realizes Queenie is enormously pregnant, and has just gone into labor.
While Bernard views Gilbert as a threat and wants to prevent him from touching Queenie, it’s Bernard who seems most volatile to Hortense. Queenie’s pregnancy is an enormous surprise, unknown to any of the other characters—moreover, since Bernard has just arrived home, the baby can’t possibly be his. Such a development certainly won’t help smooth out their marriage.
Themes
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hortense knows nothing about giving birth, and she awkwardly pats Queenie’s hand while choking back tears of fear. Queenie isn’t afraid—she tells Hortense it will be just like the scene in Gone With the Wind, when the protagonist gives birth. Hortense is indignant at the comparison; she’s an “educated woman,” not a “fool slave girl […] dancing in panic.” Determined to demonstrate this to Queenie, she strips off her gloves and boils a pot of water. Gilbert and Bernard are banging on the door, but she calmly tells them it’s a little “women’s matter.”
Queenie’s remark demonstrates her fundamental misconceptions about Hortense’s character, and the extent to which prejudice still governs her beliefs. On the other hand, it’s endearing that Hortense is actually fortified and encouraged by her remarks, because it forces her to prove herself and protect her dignity.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Queenie’s contractions are coming more frequently now, and Hortense reluctantly opens her legs to examine the baby’s progress; she’s pleased to see the head has almost emerged. It’s the “ugliest sight” Hortense has ever seen, and she’s repulsed at the idea that a woman who just a day before was going about her normal chores should be abruptly reduced to such abject and primitive suffering. Still, knowing she has to keep Queenie calm, Hortense tells her the baby is doing well and encourages her to push. Soon, Hortense finds herself holding the newborn baby.
Just as the novel presents a skeptical and ambivalent view of marriage, it presents labor as a difficult and undignified endeavor, rather than glorifying it. In doing so, the novel both shows how challenging conventional women’s duties are, and validates Queenie and Hortense’s shared reluctance to be imprisoned in traditional female roles.
Themes
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hortense hands the slimy baby to its mother, quietly pleased that she hasn’t stained her wedding dress. Following Queenie’s instructions, she ties the umbilical cord and cuts it. Lovingly, Queenie inspects the new baby, counting its fingers and toes and fingers and declaring that he’s a “lovely, perfect boy.” Suddenly, Queenie expels her afterbirth, which lands on Hortense, spattering her dress with blood. Hortense looks down at herself in dismay; but when she looks at the baby again, she realizes that his arrival is “a gift from the Lord,” well worth “a little disgust on your best dress.”
This is a turning point for Hortense—her wedding dress represented the refinement she’s cultivated her entire life, as well as her status as a “civilized” British lady, but she doesn’t even care that it’s ruined. Hortense’s sudden  grace and poise shows that she’s starting to think about others as much as herself, and that she realizes her conception of herself and the world around her doesn’t have to be based on custom and convention.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Redemption Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Hortense approaches the baby, which Queenie has swaddled in a towel. On closer inspection, she’s astounded to see that the baby, who’d been red just moments ago, is actually darker than she is; she’s even more astounded that Queenie, entranced with the little boy, doesn’t care that her baby isn’t white. Suddenly she hears Gilbert’s voice, demanding to know what’s happening, and Bernard stuffily telling Gilbert not to block the door. Hortense feels that it’s a “vicious cruelty” to look at Queenie and her serene baby and tells her that she has to let the men in.
In this moment, Hortense realizes that Queenie has done something incredibly transgressive. However, it’s important that she’s not repulsed by the realization, and doesn’t judge Queenie. Rather, she acknowledges the beauty of the bond between mother and child—no matter what race they are—and feels sad anticipating the revulsion and judgment she knows others, starting with Bernard, will express.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon