Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 54: Gilbert Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
To Gilbert’s astonishment, Hortense emerges from Queenie’s room covered in blood. Haughtily informing Bernard that he can enter, she stalks upstairs without a word to Gilbert. At first, Gilbert thinks that Queenie has insulted Hortense and his wife has attacked her in retaliation; but when he enters behind Bernard and sees Queenie cradling her brown baby, he understands that Hortense is angry because she assumes he’s the father.
It’s important that, even though Hortense incorrectly assumes the worst of Gilbert, she doesn’t let her sense of betrayal keep her from caring for Queenie, or even from feeling wonder at witnessing the beginning of a life. In this sense, Hortense’s identification with Queenie as a fellow woman is stronger than her identification as a wife.
Themes
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Bernard also makes this assumption; before Gilbert can open his mouth to explain, the older man shoves him in the hall and curses him fiercely in between punching him. When Bernard trips on a chair and falls to the ground, Gilbert feels bad for him, notwithstanding his own bleeding nose; “no man,” he thinks, “should have to look on his wife suckling a baby that is not his.” He offers to help him up, but Bernard just stares at him in mute hate, so Gilbert walks upstairs to confront Hortense.
It’s notable that while Hortense sees Queenie’s bond with her baby as an intrinsically good thing, Gilbert is more struck by Bernard’s sense of betrayal. For the women, childbirth is a moment of independence, in which outside circumstances are irrelevant. The men are more worried about who fathered the baby, and thus—in their eyes—possesses its mother.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
As he reaches the top of the stairs, Hortense emerges, perfectly clad in hat and gloves. She tells Gilbert that he disgusts her, informs him that she’ll send for her trunk when she’s “settled in,” and walks out the door. Gilbert hurries after her, but his bare foot catches on a nail and he has to pause to find his shoes. He’s worried to think of Hortense wandering the streets by herself.
Hortense’s flight from the house shows that she really does care about Gilbert—if she didn’t love him, she wouldn’t be so upset by his apparent infidelity. It’s notable that Hortense cleaves to her conception of herself as independent, even though she has no idea where she’s going and no resources to help her “settle” anywhere else.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
When he gets outside, Gilbert realizes that he too is covered in blood from Bernard’s attack. He needs to find Hortense and get inside before someone assumes he’s a criminal and calls the police. He sees her walking ahead of him; she looks purposeful, but Gilbert knows she’s unsure what to do. After all, she has “no place to go […] no mummy, no brother, no friend” to take care of her. She only has Gilbert.
Gilbert’s knowledge of Hortense’s isolation is what spurs him to feel sympathy and responsibility for her. In this sense, it’s the difficulty of their lives as immigrants that draws this unusual couple together, even though its petty frustrations often cause them to quarrel.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Redemption Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
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As Gilbert approaches, a car pulls up beside Hortense and the passenger door opens. “Ever polite to strangers,” Hortense bends down to hear what the driver is saying, only to spring back in fright. She sees Gilbert next to her; for the first time, she looks instinctively happy to see him. Hortense clings to her husband while Gilbert slaps the roof of the car and yells at the driver that “this woman is not your whore.”
This scene contrasts Hortense’s ingrained manners with the rude behavior of people who somehow believe they’re inherently better than her. While Hortense is often annoyed by her husband’s lack of manners, she learns the value of his rougher behavior now.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon