Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Small Island can help.

Small Island: Chapter 58: Queenie Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Gilbert informs Bernard that he and Hortense are leaving. Although both men end up shouting insults at each other, Bernard is pleased, since this means he and Queenie can sell the house and move to the suburbs. Queenie understands that Bernard wants a new start, and feels that she understands her husband better since she’s heard about his experiences during the war. However, she’s unsure how the baby will fit into their new future.
Despite Bernard’s private tenderness, his behavior towards Gilbert remains largely unchanged, showing that redemption isn’t a swift, one-step process. Moreover, Queenie’s newfound sympathy for her husband poses a problem—she’s not sure how to make things better for her husband without compromising her child.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Queenie has been waiting for hours for Hortense and Gilbert to pass by her door; now, she hears them giggling together in the hallway. Offering them a cup of tea, she notices they seem strained around her and no longer trust her. When they enter reluctantly, Bernard retreats frostily behind his newspaper; Queenie is angry with him for making the situation awkward.
While the Josephs’ marriage initially seemed similar to the Blighs’, it’s clear that Hortense and Gilbert have moved forward, while Queenie and Bernard remained moored in resentment and disagreement. Importantly, it’s Gilbert’s respect for Hortense’s independence that allows their marriage to thrive, while Bernard’s sense of superiority hampers his own relationship.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Clumsily, Queenie thanks Hortense for helping her with her childbirth. She offers to give them some furniture for their new house, but Gilbert refuses to take any of Bernard’s things.
While Queenie used to feel at ease among her tenants, her mixed feelings of allegiance to her husband and embarrassment at his behavior makes her suddenly awkward.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hoping to break the ice, Queenie picks up the baby from his crib, wraps him in a shawl, and hands him to Hortense to hold. She’s proud to see Hortense’s face soften at the sight of the adorable little boy. She tells them she’s named him Michael; Hortense, surprised, says that she had a brother named Michael, who was killed during the war.
Hortense and Queenie never quite understand they’ve loved the same man; this moment is the closest they come to such a realization, and is also one of their only moments of mutual concord.
Themes
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Get the entire Small Island LitChart as a printable PDF.
Small Island PDF
Queenie goes into the kitchen to help Bernard make tea, but for a minute she watches Hortense, who’s speaking softly to baby Michael while Gilbert gives him his finger to chew. When she brings the tray of tea back in, Queenie knows she has to say what’s on her mind. In a rush, she asks Hortense and Gilbert if they will take the baby with them when they move out of the house.
Suddenly, it’s clear why Queenie invited the Josephs in for tea. It’s notable that she makes this decision and appeal without consulting Bernard—in doing so, she reclaims some of the independence that she lost upon his return.
Themes
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hortense and Gilbert are in shock, but Queenie pleads earnestly for them to bring baby Michael up as their own son. Suddenly, Bernard interjects; to Queenie’s surprise, he insists that the baby needs his mother and should stay in his own home. When Queenie says that they can’t look after him properly, Bernard asks, “why ever not?” Everyone else stares at him, surprised that he, of all people, seems suddenly ignorant of the impropriety of two white parents raising a black child.
This speech is highly uncharacteristic for Bernard; following on his moments of bonding with the baby, his public declaration of a willingness to change his behavior—and his entire life—to parent a black child is the closest Bernard comes to redemption and transformation.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Bernard suggests that they move to the suburbs and tell everyone baby Michael is adopted. Crying, Queenie points out that such a solution won’t work when the baby grows up and other children make fun of him or ostracize him. With a black son, Bernard will never have the “proper, decent” life he wants, and eventually he’ll come to resent Michael for that. Moreover, Queenie says that even she, the baby’s own mother, doesn’t have the “guts” for the fight that bringing up a black child would entail.
However, it’s clear that Bernard’s suggestion isn’t grounded in pragmatic thinking, but rather in momentary optimism. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for him to give up his feelings of belonging and embrace the ostracism that would come with a black child. Queenie’s response shows how much she’s considered this problem, and shows a heart-wrenching awareness not only of Bernard’s limitations in standing up to their racist society, but her own.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Redemption Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Turning back to Gilbert and Hortense, Queenie says that she trusts them to raise baby Michael, and that she prefers giving him to them rather than to an orphanage. This way, they can write to her to let her know how he’s doing. She can even give them money to take care of him. She knows that they can give him a better, more stable life than she could.
While Bernard’s declaration is moving, it’s Queenie who has truly considered the welfare of the child. Even though she might initially be happier keeping it, she knows her son will have a more stable childhood with the Josephs.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon