Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Small Island: Chapter 59: Hortense Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hortense never could have dreamed that one day a white woman would be begging her to take in her black child. Not even Celia could have imagined that this is what would happen in the Mother Country.
Here, Hortense contrasts her initial expectations with her experience in England—it’s a reminder that British society and people are much different than they would have their colonial subjects believe.
Themes
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Gilbert tries to argue with Queenie, telling her that no one can take care of the baby as well as its own mother. By this point, Queenie is sobbing. Gilbert puts an arm around her shoulders to comfort her, but at the sight of this, Bernard explodes, telling him to “get your filthy black hands off my wife.”
Bernard’s rude explosion proves that his altruistic gesture was ill-considered; he can’t really overcome his racism, even in a moment of crisis when his wife is distraught. As such, he’s not fit to be a father to a black child.
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Gilbert and Bernard stand to face each other, heedless of Hortense’s pleas that they be quiet and mind the baby. Disdainfully, Bernard says that the baby would be “better off begging in a gutter” than entrusted to Gilbert and Hortense.
It’s ironic that Bernard criticizes the Josephs’ parenting skills, considering he’s just proved himself a completely ill-equipped to take on the baby himself.
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Redemption Theme Icon
Exasperated, Gilbert tells Bernard that his problem is that his white skin makes him think he’s better than everyone else. In reality, Gilbert says, his skin doesn’t make him better or worse; it just makes him white. Both men have just finished fighting on the same side of the same war, but even after all their shared suffering, Bernard still thinks that Gilbert is “worthless,” and he is not. In despair, Gilbert asks if he will ever be willing to work together or if he’s determined to fight people like them “till the end.”
Gilbert’s speech is so simple it borders on absurdity; however, he’s articulating the basic problem at the root of the novel’s manifold frustrations and complex relationships. Even as he’s indicting Bernard’s illogical beliefs, Gilbert offers him a way out, saying that he can redeem himself by finding a way to “work together” instead of fighting indefinitely.
Themes
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Related Quotes
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The room is quiet; even the baby has stopped crying. Hortense is proud of Gilbert. From his speech, she’s realized that her husband was “a man of class, a man of character, a man of intelligence.” However, after a long pause, Bernard says that he hasn’t understood a word of what Gilbert just said.
Hortense’s description of Gilbert parallels her description of her father at the beginning of the novel. However, her respect for Gilbert’s independent thinking and willingness to confront racism shows that her values have changed since childhood, when she worshipped her father for successfully fitting into a colonial regime.
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Redemption Theme Icon
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Gilbert picks up the baby and hands him to Bernard, then takes Hortense’s hand and pulls her out of the room, running up the stairs. Panting behind him, Hortense reaches their room to find him punching the wall and yelling incoherently. He asks Hortense what they should do. He doesn’t think they can walk away and “leave that little colored baby alone in this country,” at the mercy of people like Bernard.
Gilbert is angry because even when he makes himself vulnerable before Bernard by expressing his honest feelings, Bernard can’t—or won’t try to—understand him. However, even in his personal sadness, he’s concerned for the fate of a baby that isn’t even his.
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Redemption Theme Icon
Holding Gilbert’s hand, Hortense tells him that she too was given away as a baby, because of the color of her skin. As a result, she hardly remembers anything of her mother. Gilbert asks if Michael Roberts was really her brother, and she says that he was actually her cousin. Gilbert asks if she loved him, and she says that she did. Hortense asks Gilbert if he wants to take the baby, and after a long pause Gilbert says that he thinks “there is nothing else that we can do.”
Hortense’s own childhood makes her reluctant to take another baby away from its mother. However, considering Bernard’s behavior, her experiences show her that she should take the baby, rather than leave it to an unloving and unstable home. By accepting and loving another woman’s child, Hortense can do what her own surrogate parents never did for her, thus confronting and moving past her traumatic childhood.
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Hortense watches Queenie as she sadly packs up baby Michael’s clothes, kissing them as she folds him. Just as Hortense only retains scattered impressions of her mother, Michael will only know Queenie from the clothes she’s made him and the tears she’s cried as she gives him away.
This scene makes an implicit comparison between Queenie and Alberta; in doing so, it strengthens Hortense’s sense that adopting the baby gives her a chance to right the wrongs of her own youth.
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With difficulty, Winston and Gilbert carry Hortense’s trunk down the stairs while Hortense comforts baby Michael. She feels something hard sewn into his nappy and discovers it’s a knitted pouch. Opening it, she finds a bundle of money and photograph of a much younger Queenie. She knows that if she tells Gilbert, his pride will make him insist on returning the money. Instead, she places the bundle in her bag, resolving to “put them to good use when they were required.”
The Roberts’ tried to erase Hortense’s parentage, which they thought of as shameful, by ignoring it. In contrast, Hortense promises to value Michael’s unusual origins. While she’s adopting Michael so he can grow up among parents who look more like him, Hortense is doing so out of necessity, not because she thinks this is the way things should be. Here, she shows that she’s not complicit in structures of racism, like her cousins. Instead, she’s subverting them by safeguarding the memory of Michael’s interracial parentage and promising to tell him about it one day.
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Without any regret, Hortense closes the door of their wretched little room. At Queenie’s door she pauses and knocks; she’s sure the other woman is inside, but no one answers. Gilbert takes baby Michael from her and tells her to hurry up; their van is ready. Before leaving, Hortense straightens her hat and buttons her coat so she won’t be cold.
Hortense’s gestures mirror her preoccupation with her outfit upon her first arrival at Queenie’s house. At the beginning, this habit showed her obsession with manners and propriety; now, it demonstrates her dignified determination as she embarks on an unconventional future. The similarity of her gestures emphasizes Hortense’s significant evolution as a character since her arrival in England.
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