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 6: Hortense Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hortense covets a job at the prestigious Church of England school, where all the students are wealthy and well-behaved girls. However, despite Hortense’s well-known father, the headmaster won’t hire her because she was born out of wedlock, and her “breeding was not legitimate enough.” In the end, Celia finds her a job teaching in the “scruffy” Half Way Tree Parish School. All of the students and teachers love Celia and tell Hortense how grateful she should be for her friendship and guidance, but Hortense is demoralized by the large and disobedient classes.
Hortense’s upbringing allowed her an education and taught her to aspire to jobs in wealthy and high-status spheres, like the Church of England school. However, it can’t erase the fact of her illegitimacy, which prevents her from actually achieving the things she wants. In this sense, Hortense’s fair skin contributes to her feelings of displacement, rather than conferring advantages on her.
Themes
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Hortense boards with a white family, the Andersons. She thought they would be a “respectable family,” and is shocked to find them “boorish” and “ill-bred.” The grandmother, Rosa, eats dinner with her hands, while Mrs. Anderson talks with her mouth open about her experiences in childbirth. Hortense invites Celia over for dinner to witness their bad behavior, but Celia gets along well with the Andersons, who seem to like her more than Hortense.
Hortense assumes that the Andersons, as British citizens, would emblematize the culture she’s always worshipped. This is her first realization that British behavior doesn’t always coincide with British colonial narratives. Celia’s more lenient reaction to the family contrasts with Hortense’s unhealthy preoccupation with manners.
Themes
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Meanwhile, Celia confides to Hortense that she’s courting a former RAF soldier. She retells her new boyfriend’s thrilling tales about the war, and she’s excited that he wants to return to England, hoping he’ll take her with him. When Hortense finally meets Celia’s boyfriend, it turns out he’s the same man who rescued her from the crowd months ago. Celia is unhappy that they’ve already met, while Hortense is upset by the man’s slight resemblance to Michael. Celia finally introduces him as Gilbert Joseph.
With Gilbert, Celia imagines herself making a new start in a new country. However, when she finds he already knows Hortense, Celia realizes he’s more tied to her past than she expected or wanted. For her part, Hortense finds in Gilbert an unpleasant reminder of her own past and the future she lost with Michael’s disappearance.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Hortense frequently accompanies Celia on outings with Gilbert. Gilbert loves to joke with the two women, and while Celia is receptive to his teasing, Hortense always keeps her distance. When they’re not with him, Celia daydreams constantly about marrying him and moving to England. One day, after telling them all about the splendid monuments of London, Gilbert suggests, half seriously and half in jest, that Celia come with him to England. Dazzled, Celia agrees and says that Hortense will have to take over her classes.
Hortense’s stiffness shows she finds it difficult to approach new friendships—possibly because of her childhood in an unloving family. In contrast, Gilbert and Celia display an appealing casualness. However, their tendency to make plans spontaneously, rather than thoughtfully, suggests that these plans won’t come to fruition.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
Get the entire Small Island LitChart as a printable PDF.
Small Island PDF
Feeling angry and left out, Hortense reminds Celia innocently that she’ll have to take her mother as well. When Celia says nothing, Hortense explains that Celia’s mother is “quite mad,” citing the incident at the parade. With the excuse of finding some ice cream, Gilbert extricates himself from the women and runs away. Furious, Celia slaps Hortense in the face and stalks off.
Just as she did when she saw Mr. Ryder’s body, Hortense betrays a friend because she herself feels hurt. In this instance, her action seems more deliberated and thus more blameworthy. Her self-centered behavior toward Celia is one of the major flaws in Hortense’s character.
Themes
Redemption Theme Icon