Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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

Queenie Buxton

Queenie Buxton, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a white British woman who rents lodgings to the Josephs (Gilbert and Hortense) when they arrive in England. Queenie grows up the uneducated daughter of… read analysis of Queenie Buxton

Hortense Roberts

Hortense Roberts, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a young Jamaican woman who immigrates to England. Hortense is born out of wedlock to a famous Jamaican bureaucrat, Lovell Roberts, and a penniless maid, Albertaread analysis of Hortense Roberts

Gilbert Joseph

Gilbert Joseph, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a young Jamaican man who immigrates to England. Gilbert yearns for a more exciting and adventurous life than the one available to him as a working-class man… read analysis of Gilbert Joseph

Bernard Bligh

Queenie’s husband, Bernard Bligh, is an English bank clerk and RAF soldier. Bernard is the novel’s most unsympathetic character. Hostile to anyone who’s not of his own race or class, Bernard typifies the racism… read analysis of Bernard Bligh

Queenie’s Father (Wilfred Buxton)

Queenie’s father is a gruff and short-tempered man. Like his wife, Lillie Buxton, Wilfred is exclusively focused on the butchery, which keeps the family safe from the poverty that surrounds them in their… read analysis of Queenie’s Father (Wilfred Buxton)
Get the entire Small Island LitChart as a printable PDF.
Small Island PDF

Celia Langley

Celia Langley is Hortense’s best friend at teaching college. Hortense looks up to Celia—she’s older and more experienced, a better teacher, and much more comfortable at socializing, especially with men. However, Celia’s mother is… read analysis of Celia Langley

Lovell Roberts

Hortense’s father, Lovell Roberts, is a light-skinned and powerful government bureaucrat. Hortense is considered lucky because of her father’s high status, and her mother, Alberta, even gives her up to be raised by… read analysis of Lovell Roberts

Miss Jewel

Hortense’s grandmother, who works as a servant in the Roberts house. Although she has to call Hortense “miss” in public, Miss Jewel treats Hortense as family when they’re alone. Miss Jewel is the only… read analysis of Miss Jewel

Philip Roberts

Lovell Roberts’ cousin who takes Hortense in. He is married to Martha Roberts, and the two have a son named Michael. Philip is a wealthy and respected landowner, but at home, he… read analysis of Philip Roberts

Martha Roberts/Miss Ma

Philip Roberts’ wife and Hortense’s surrogate mother. Hortense calls her “Miss Ma,” which shows that their relationship is entirely formal, only a parody of real motherhood. Martha openly prefers her biological son, Michaelread analysis of Martha Roberts/Miss Ma

Michael Roberts

Philip and Martha’s son, and Hortense’s first love. As a young boy, Michael annoys Hortense, but when he returns home from college as an educated sophisticate, she immediately falls for him. However, he… read analysis of Michael Roberts

Aunt Dorothy

Queenie’s aunt, who owns a candy shop in London. Through this relative, Queenie escapes the drudgery of her butchery and begins an exciting new life in the city. Aunt Dorothy encourages Queenie to marry… read analysis of Aunt Dorothy

Arthur Bligh

Bernard’s father, who is mute and mentally ill following his traumatic experience as a soldier in World War I. Bernard’s tenderness toward his father is one of his few good qualities; however, it’s Arthur… read analysis of Arthur Bligh

Elwood

Gilbert’s cousin, with whom he embarks as a catastrophic beekeeping business venture. Elwood, who wants to stay in Jamaica and be part of the struggle to free his country from colonial rule, is a… read analysis of Elwood

Charles Ryder

An American missionary and founder of the school where Hortense works. Hortense rarely interacts with him, but he’s known in the community to cheat on his wife, Stella, with local women, and potentially to… read analysis of Charles Ryder

Miss Morgan

The headmistress of Hortense’s teaching college. She constantly preaches the superiority of English customs and encourages her students to emulate the “mother country” in ever possible way. However, she’s also kind to Hortense when… read analysis of Miss Morgan

Gilbert’s Father

A Jamaican Jew who converts to Christianity while fighting in World War I. Ostracized by his own family, he marries a Jamaican Christian woman named Louise. During Gilbert’s childhood, his father is an… read analysis of Gilbert’s Father

Celia’s mother

A mentally ill Jamaican woman. Appearing only once in the novel, Celia’s mother embarrasses Celia and Hortense at a parade by appearing in a ridiculous outfit and accosting a random soldier, mistakenly believing him to… read analysis of Celia’s mother
Minor Characters
Queenie’s Mother (Lillie Buxton)
Queenie’s mother is a brusque woman who runs a butchery with her husband, Wilfred. Disgusted by the family business, Queenie seizes her first chance to leave the farm in order to avoid becoming a woman like her mother.
Alberta
Hortense’s mother, an uneducated maid, who had Hortense with Lovell Roberts. Hortense barely remembers Alberta, who gave her to her father’s cousins (Philip and Martha Roberts) and so that she might be raised in a wealthy and educated household.
Bernard’s Mother
A young woman when Arthur returns home insane from World War I, Bernard’s mother ages rapidly under the stress of caring for her husband and providing for her Bernard. She dies at the age of forty-two, when Bernard is finally old enough to work.
Baby Michael
Queenie’s baby. Scandalously, the father is Michael Roberts, not Bernard, and the baby is black. Queenie gives up baby Michael to Hortense and Gilbert so the baby can have a more stable, normal life.
Emily
An employee of Queenie’s parents. She chaperones Queenie at the British Empire Exhibition and makes fun of the people in the Africa exhibit.
Graham
An employee of Queenie’s parents. With Emily, he takes Queenie to see the Africa exhibit at the British Empire Exhibition, and informs her ignorantly that black people can’t speak or understand English.
Miss Earl
Queenie’s elementary school teacher.
Billy
One of Queenie’s younger brothers.
Harry
One of Queenie’s younger brothers.
Jim
One of Queenie’s younger brothers, who dies of rheumatic fever in childhood.
Stella Ryder
Charles Ryder’s wife, a well-meaning but ignorant American missionary who makes no attempt to understand Jamaica’s complex society but views all the black people around her as poor and backwards. Stella has an affair with Michael Roberts, after which he has to join the RAF to escape the scandal.
Mr. Todd
Queenie’s ignorant and racist neighbor, who complains first about Cockney refugees settling in their neighborhood and later about their black tenants. Mr. Cyril Todd represents the general racism of the neighborhood.
Blanche Smith
Queenie’s neighbor, who leaves the neighborhood with her family because too many people of color have settled there after the war.
Mrs. Newman
Queenie’s neighbor. During the Blitz, she’s forced to rent lodgings to a Cockney family who lost their own house, but she resents having to do so, confining them to an attic and refusing to let them use her bathrooms.
Louise Joseph
Gilbert’s mother, a resourceful woman who runs a cake-baking business to support her many children, as well as Gilbert’s father, who is an alcoholic.
Lester Joseph
Gilbert’s brother, who moves to America as a factory worker during the war.
Colonel Baxter
Gilbert’s first commanding officer. All the men in the regiment despise Colonel Baxter because he refers to them condescendingly as “colony troops.”
Sergeant Thwaites
Gilbert’s commanding officer in England.
Levi and Jon
Two black American GIs, to whom Gilbert gives a ride during one of his errands. The American are shocked at the extent to which Gilbert interacts with white soldiers in the RAF, while Gilbert is revolted by how completely segregated the Americans’ lives are.
Hubert
One of Gilbert’s wartime friends, another Jamaican airman.
Fulton
One of Gilbert’s wartime friends, another Jamaican airman.
James
One of Gilbert’s wartime friends, another Jamaican airman.
Franny
Queenie’s friend from her job at the rest center, who persuades her to let three officers stay at her house during their leave, one of whom is Michael Roberts.
Maxi
Bernard’s only friend during his time as a soldier in India. A cheerful older man, Maxi takes Bernard under his wing and convinces him to go into business with him when they return to England. However, Maxi eventually dies in a fire in their barracks.
Arun
An Indian soldier with whom Bernard shares guard duty. Bernard initially likes him because he’s educated and obedient. Later, Bernard accuses him of stealing his rifle with Ashok, another Indian soldier.
Ashok
An Indian soldier with whom Bernard shares guard duty. Bernard dislikes him because he speaks ironically of all the “good things” Britain has brought to India, in reality pointing out the injustice of colonial rule.
Noreen
Kenneth’s landlady, who often kicks him out, forcing him to hide out in his brother Winston’s room in Queenie’s house.
Mr. Plant
A quiet German-Jewish refugee who lodges with Bernard and Queenie just before the outbreak of war. When Britain officially declares war on Germany, the government imprisons him in an internment center.
Bert
Gilbert’s partner in his post office job, an older white man who’s never convinced that Gilbert, as a foreigner, knows where he’s driving.
Pierpont
A young man in Bernard’s unit. Bernard despises him, partly because he has Communist leanings and helps organize the strike that results in the unit’s transfer to Calcutta, and partly because Pierpont makes fun of him and constantly gives him crude sex advice.
Charlie Denton
A white soldier in Gilbert’s RAF unit. Charlie is unintelligent and barely knows the basics of British history. While Hortense isn’t allowed to teach in England because her extensive training took place in Jamaica, Charlie gets a job after only a year of training in England.
Rosa Anderson and Mrs. Anderson
Two members of a white British colonial family whom Hortense boards with while teaching at the Half Way Tree Parish School. Hortense is shocked at their bad manners, though Celia gets along well with them.
Jean
A white women, who seems likely to be a prostitute, who lives in the same building as Hortense and Gilbert in London.
Winston
A tenant in the same building as Hortense and Gilbert, who offers to let Hortense and Gilbert live in a rundown house he owns in exchange for helping him to fix it up. They move into the house at the end of the book.
Kenneth
Winston's twin brother. Kenneth is much less dependable than Winston, is always embroiled in some get-rich-quick scheme, and comes to stay with his brother often because he regularly gets kicked of his own apartment by his landlady.