Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Gilbert Joseph Character Analysis

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 in Jamaica, so when World War II breaks out, he eagerly joins the RAF and is deployed to England. As a result of splitting his life between England and Jamaica, Gilbert experiences profound feelings of displacement—he feels out of place in British society, with its rampant prejudice and racism, but can’t readjust to Jamaica, where economic and professional opportunity are limited. Like Hortense, Gilbert is notably self-centered at the beginning of the novel. He gets married solely because Hortense can pay for his ticket to England, and when she eventually follows him, he’s frustrated by her unrealistic expectations of England without bothering to help her adjust at all. However, Gilbert eventually learns to empathize with his wife, comforting and reassuring her when she’s crushed by her failure to get a teaching job. He also learns to value her strong-mindedness, which keeps him from getting discouraged by the discrimination he faces every day. At the end of the novel Gilbert’s maturity is reflected in his marriage, which is secure and loving rather than rooted in self-interest.

Gilbert Joseph Quotes in Small Island

The Small Island quotes below are all either spoken by Gilbert Joseph or refer to Gilbert Joseph. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Picador edition of Small Island published in 2004.
Chapter 11: Gilbert Quotes

Anthropoid—I looked to the dictionary to find the meaning of this word used by Hitler and his friends to describe Jews and colored men. I got a punch in the head when the implication jumped from the page and struck me: “resembling a human but primitive, like an ape.” Two whacks I got. For I am a black man whose father was born a Jew.

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker), Elwood, Gilbert’s Father
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12: Gilbert Quotes

Living far from you is a beloved relation whom you have never met. Yet this relation is so dear a kin she is known as Mother. Your own mummy talks of Mother all the time. “Oh, Mother is a beautiful woman—refined, mannerly, and cultured.” Your daddy tells you, “Mother thinks of you as her children; like the Lord above she takes care of you from afar” […] your finest, your best, everything you have that is worthy is sent to Mother as gifts.

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker)
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

Ask any of us West Indian RAF volunteers—ask any of us colony troops where in Britain are ships built, where is cotton woven, steel forged, cars made, jam boiled, cups shaped, lace knotted, glass blown, tin mined, whiskey distilled? Ask […]

Now see this. An English soldier, a Tommy called Tommy Atkins […] Ask him, “Tommy, tell me nah, where is Jamaica?” And hear him reply, “Well, dunno. Africa, ain’t it?”

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker)
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16: Gilbert Quotes

I was learning to despise the white American GI above all other. They were the army that hated me the most! Out of place in the genteel atmosphere of this dreary tea-shop these three aggrieved GIs twitched with hostile excitement, like snipers clearing their aim at a sitting target […] these poor GIs were in a murderous mood watching a nigger sitting with his head still high. If the defeat of hatred is the purpose of war, then come, let us face it: I and all the other colored servicemen were fighting this war on another front.

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker), Queenie Buxton
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17: Gilbert Quotes

Arthur Bligh had become another casualty of war—but come, tell me, someone…which war?

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker), Queenie Buxton, Arthur Bligh
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 18: Gilbert Quotes

In that moment, standing tall on Kingston harbor, I was shocked by the awful realization that man, we Jamaicans are all small islanders too!

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 49: Gilbert Quotes

There was something I recognized on the face of Bernard Bligh […] Come, I saw it reflected from every mirror on my dear Jamaican island. Staring back on me from my own face. Residing in the white of the eye, the turn of the mouth, the thrust of the chin. A bewildered soul. Too much seen to go back. Too much changed to know which way is forward. I knew with this beleaguered man’s return the days of living quiet in this house had come to an end.

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker), Bernard Bligh
Related Symbols: Queenie’s House
Page Number: 368
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 51: Gilbert Quotes

Hortense should have yelled in righteous pain not whimper in my ear […] Come, let me tell you, I wanted to tempt these busybodies closer. Beckon them to step forward and take a better look. For then I might catch my hand around one of their scrawny white necks and squeeze. No one will watch us weep in this country.

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker), Hortense Roberts
Page Number: 380
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 56: Gilbert Quotes

“Gilbert, come, you no scared of a little hard work. I can help you.” She spun round the room. “With a little paint and some carpet.” She moved to the corner leaning over to spread out her arms and say “And a table and a chair here,” before rushing to the fireplace with the suggestion, “and two armchairs here in front of an open English fire. You will see—we will make it nice.”

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Gilbert Joseph
Page Number: 417
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 59: Hortense Quotes

Gilbert sucked on his teeth to return this man’s scorn. “You know what your trouble is, man?” he said. “Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. […] listen to me, man, we both just finish fighting a war—a bloody war—for the better world we wan’ see. And on the same side—you and me. […] But still, after all that we suffer together, you wan’ tell me I am worthless and you are not.”

Related Characters: Gilbert Joseph (speaker), Bernard Bligh, Baby Michael
Page Number: 435
Explanation and Analysis:

For at that moment as Gilbert stood, his chest panting with the passion from his words, I realized that Gilbert Joseph, my husband, was a man of class, a man of character, a man of intelligence. Noble in a way that would some day make him a legend […] But this Englishman just carried on, “I’m sorry… but I just can’t understand a single word that you’re saying.”

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Gilbert Joseph, Bernard Bligh
Page Number: 435
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Small Island LitChart as a printable PDF.
Small Island PDF

Gilbert Joseph Character Timeline in Small Island

The timeline below shows where the character Gilbert Joseph appears in Small Island. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Hortense
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
...woman eventually answers and doesn’t seem to understand Hortense when she says she’s looking for Gilbert Joseph. Squinting at Hortense’s immense trunk, the woman says that Gilbert was supposed to meet... (full context)
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In his last letter, Gilbert had assured Hortense that he would meet her at the dock, “waving my hand with... (full context)
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...difficult to understand her. After some confusion, the taxi driver takes her to the address Gilbert provided in his letter, instructing her along the way how to ring a doorbell. (full context)
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Now, Gilbert comes running down the stairs. Hortense hasn’t seen him for so long that she hardly... (full context)
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After climbing many flights of dingy stairs with difficulty, Gilbert proudly shows Hortense a tiny room that smells of gas. Tiredly, Hortense asks him to... (full context)
Chapter 2: Gilbert
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After leaving the room to fetch Hortense’s trunk, Gilbert finds Queenie downstairs. She says that Hortense is a funny name, but he points out... (full context)
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...Jamaican fashion, Kenneth interrogates Hortense on her family and background, while it becomes clear to Gilbert that Hortense dislikes the man. Gilbert finally gets Kenneth to leave, but straight away starts... (full context)
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In order to make the room warmer, Gilbert tries to turn on the gas, but he can’t find money for the gas meter.... (full context)
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Gilbert is embarrassed that he’s so unprepared. When Hortense runs her hand along the mantel, he’s... (full context)
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Gilbert tells Hortense that, instead of a real kitchen, she’ll have to cook their meals on... (full context)
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When Hortense returns, Gilbert explains that she can also use the chamber pot under the bed. However, he holds... (full context)
Chapter 6: Hortense
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...Hortense is upset by the man’s slight resemblance to Michael. Celia finally introduces him as Gilbert Joseph. (full context)
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Hortense frequently accompanies Celia on outings with Gilbert. Gilbert loves to joke with the two women, and while Celia is receptive to his... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 7: Hortense
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Hortense and Gilbert stand in a church, half-listening as the minister lectures them about embarking on married life... (full context)
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The Andersons are shocked when Hortense introduces Gilbert to them as her fiancé, and when she admits they’ve only known each other for... (full context)
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Even after the fallout with Celia, Gilbert and Hortense have remained friends. He’s intensely restless and consumed with the desire to return... (full context)
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One day, Gilbert sees an article about the Empire Windrush, a ship leaving for England in a month.... (full context)
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...Afterwards, the Andersons host a celebratory dinner; Hortense is still disgusted by their manners, but Gilbert gets along with them well and romps with the little boys. (full context)
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When the new couple is finally alone in Hortense’s room, Gilbert tries to kiss Hortense and undress her, but she’s frightened and startled to see him... (full context)
Chapter 8: Hortense
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...prying, on her last night at home, Hortense is unusually talkative. She tells her that Gilbert has been alone in England for six months. The old woman is shocked, and exhorts... (full context)
Chapter 9: Queenie
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...social services. Queenie knows he’s just coming over to snoop, having noticed the arrival of Gilbert’s wife. Before the war, Mr. Todd complained about Poles and Czechs; now he rants about... (full context)
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Even though renting to Gilbert has earned her the enmity of her neighbors, Queenie has been glad to have him... (full context)
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When Gilbert arrives, Queenie takes him in because she knows Bernard would hate it. Blanche tells her... (full context)
Chapter 10: Hortense
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That night, Hortense makes Gilbert close his eyes while she undresses, and banishes him to sleep in the armchair while... (full context)
Chapter 11: Gilbert
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In a flashback, Gilbert describes his time in the RAF. When he first joins the armed forces, he’s thrilled... (full context)
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However, an American officer soon informs Gilbert and his comrades that for the duration of their stay in Virginia, they’ll be confined... (full context)
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After this incident, Gilbert remembers the words of his cousin Elwood, who was astounded that Gilbert wants to be... (full context)
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However, Gilbert has read that Hitler considers both Jews and people of color to be “primitive, like... (full context)
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At the beginning of the war, Gilbert’s older brother Lester tries to sign up for the RAF, but they refuse to accept... (full context)
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In Virginia, American soldiers attempt to flatter Gilbert and the other men and compensate for their confinement by insinuating that they are “superior”... (full context)
Chapter 12: Gilbert
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With his regiment, Gilbert arrives at a makeshift training camp based in a Yorkshire holiday resort. Gilbert and his... (full context)
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On their first day off, Gilbert, James, Fulton, and Hubert walk into the nearest village, looking for a bar. Gilbert notices... (full context)
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Explaining his relationship to England, Gilbert says the “mother country” is like a beloved relation named Mother living far away. Children... (full context)
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For his part, Gilbert is chagrined that while he’s known since childhood minute details of British geography and culture,... (full context)
Chapter 13: Gilbert
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One day, Sergeant Thwaites asks Gilbert if he can drive. Gilbert lies that he can’t; he spent his entire childhood driving... (full context)
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Gilbert protests to Sergeant Thwaites that he wants to train for a posting to the front,... (full context)
Chapter 14: Gilbert
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After training, Gilbert’s regiment is dispersed throughout the country. With other British volunteers, Gilbert works as a driver... (full context)
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When the officers emerge, Gilbert politely pretends not to have heard anything. The officer won’t let him go to the... (full context)
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Driving back to the base, Gilbert sees two African-American GIs—the first black people he’s seen in some time—and offers them a... (full context)
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Gilbert is astounded that the American army has taken segregation this far, and asks his passengers... (full context)
Chapter 15: Gilbert
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A few days later, Gilbert is enjoying his day off. He’s reading a newspaper on a bench outside the church... (full context)
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The man doesn’t respond. Suddenly, a low-flying airplane passes overhead. While Gilbert is startled, the old man throws himself to the muddy ground, terrified. Gilbert realizes that... (full context)
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Gilbert is anxious when he knocks on the door; he’s lived in England long enough to... (full context)
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The woman starts to shut the door on Gilbert but he hangs around, “not ready to leave such a pretty woman.” Eventually, worn down... (full context)
Chapter 16: Gilbert
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Walking through town a few days later, Gilbert encounters some drunk American soldiers who demand that he salute them, as they are his... (full context)
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However, when he arrives with Queenie at the tea shop and sits down, Gilbert is disturbed to notice three white American GIs glaring at him from a nearby table,... (full context)
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Gilbert listens uneasily as Queenie tells him that she’s been staying with her parents in the... (full context)
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Suddenly, Queenie sees Arthur on the street and rushes out of the store. Gilbert stands, certain that he won’t be able to leave without a fight. The Americans get... (full context)
Chapter 17: Gilbert
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...the theater, but while she gives Queenie and Arthur seats in the front, she tells Gilbert that he has to sit in the gallery. Both Queenie and Gilbert are confounded, as... (full context)
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...point, the quarrel has attracted the attention of other customers. An American derisively shouts for Gilbert to do what he’s told, and Queenie shouts back, supported by some other British women.... (full context)
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...fighting, trampling civilians in their haste to get at each other. Queenie grabs Arthur and Gilbert and hustles them towards the exit, but Gilbert soon loses her in the rush. One... (full context)
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...arrive and attack the black GIs with boots and batons. A white GI jumps on Gilbert, and the two men wrestle. When Gilbert extricates himself, he sees another white man bashing... (full context)
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A gunshot sounds, and the entire crowd stills. Gilbert makes his way toward the sound; he hears Queenie screaming Arthur’s name. When he reaches... (full context)
Chapter 18: Gilbert
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In 1947, Gilbert returns to Jamaica. Little boys stand on the dock to greet them and a band... (full context)
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Gilbert has had to wait two years since the war’s end for a ship back to... (full context)
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Moreover, Gilbert finds his family scattered. Four sisters got married and immigrated to America, while the other... (full context)
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Elwood teases Gilbert for returning, saying it’s obvious that he was right when he said it’s better to... (full context)
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...insists that black Jamaicans need to control their own country and government. Meanwhile, he tells Gilbert he’s planning on starting a beekeeping business and convinces Gilbert to invest in it. (full context)
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With Elwood, Gilbert takes a stubborn mule named Enid to pick up their new beehives from a friend.... (full context)
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...to contain the damage, Enid dies from bee stings and the bees escape, taking all Gilbert’s savings with them. Ever the optimist, Elwood wants to look for the bees in the... (full context)
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In this midst of this dilemma, Gilbert meets Celia Langley, whose adoration makes him feel valuable and excited again. He entertains himself... (full context)
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Given Hortense’s evident dislike, Gilbert is shocked when she offers to lend him the money for passage to England. Gilbert... (full context)
Chapter 19: Gilbert
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When Gilbert arrives in London again, he’s proud to feel familiar and at ease, unlike the other... (full context)
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Gilbert spends his first nights sharing a “malodorous” room with six other Jamaican men. They’re all... (full context)
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In desperation, Gilbert remembers that he still has Queenie’s address. Hoping the house hasn’t been bombed to pieces,... (full context)
Chapter 20: Hortense
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In the morning, Gilbert “rudely” wakes Hortense up and makes her a cup of tea before going to work.... (full context)
Chapter 21: Gilbert
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Hurrying down the stairs, Gilbert encounters Queenie. He’s learned to avoid her much of the time. Since her husband is... (full context)
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Queenie asks if it was Winston or Kenneth who helped Gilbert with the trunk yesterday. Gilbert lies that it was Winston, since Queenie hates Kenneth and... (full context)
Chapter 30: Gilbert
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After Gilbert finds accommodation with Queenie, he starts searching for a job. With a letter from the... (full context)
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In another office, a man asks if Gilbert is a Christian; he says yes, even though life in England is severely trying his... (full context)
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Eventually, Gilbert gets a job as a postman driver. Even though he’s thrilled to be employed, he... (full context)
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...Hortense’s first day in London, Bert gets sick. The other workers refuse to drive with Gilbert, so he has to go to King’s Cross by himself. When he arrives, he’s confused... (full context)
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When Gilbert arrives home, having forgotten all about his new wife, he finds Hortense scrubbing their room... (full context)
Chapter 31: Hortense
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For her part, Hortense is angry with Gilbert for constantly criticizing her behavior. After he makes her get up from the floor, he... (full context)
Chapter 32: Gilbert
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Gilbert wonders if Elwood was right to say he should’ve stayed in Jamaica. He imagines his... (full context)
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Suddenly, a middle-aged woman runs after Gilbert, handing him a glove he dropped in the street. When she sees his distraught face,... (full context)
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Gilbert buys two portions of fish and chips and brings them back to Hortense so she... (full context)
Chapter 46: Bernard
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Hearing Queenie shouting, Gilbert comes downstairs to check on her. Angry to see a black man in his house,... (full context)
Chapter 49: Gilbert
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Someone knocks on the door, announcing himself as Winston, but when Gilbert answers, he’s sure it’s actually Kenneth, because the man doesn’t bother to greet Hortense and... (full context)
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...Moreover, Kenneth admits he’s insulted Bernard by saying that Queenie is attracted to black men. Gilbert is aghast, knowing that his behavior will have repercussions for all of them. (full context)
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Gilbert recognizes in Bernard his own bewilderment, their shared inability to determine “which way is forward,”... (full context)
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...dinner she’s cooking, but when he actually smells it, he departs in a hurry. Lying, Gilbert tells her the food looks lovely and crunches his way through a half-cooked plate of... (full context)
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Thinking that Hortense might be worried by the news of Bernard, Gilbert tells her not to fret, and that he will prevent them from being evicted. Hortense... (full context)
Chapter 50: Hortense
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...and her letters of recommendation at the education office, Hortense wears her fancy wedding dress. Gilbert makes fun of her, but she quells him by saying this occasion is more momentous... (full context)
Chapter 51: Gilbert
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Gilbert sees Hortense exit the building; confused and bewildered, she bumps into a large man who... (full context)
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Hortense begins to cry and tells Gilbert she can’t teach. He guides her to a park bench and puts an arm around... (full context)
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Gilbert offers Hortense a handkerchief which she rejects in favor of her own much cleaner one.... (full context)
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To distract Hortense from the catastrophic afternoon, Gilbert takes her on a double-decker bus to sightsee around London. Hortense is excited, pointing out... (full context)
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While they’re drinking tea in a café, Gilbert sees some Jamaican men and greets them. Hortense asks why he talks to the men... (full context)
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...possibility that she wouldn’t be able to teach. Sensing an opening in her tough exterior, Gilbert takes her hand and informs her that he’ll look after her, but Hortense withdraws the... (full context)
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Hortense is outraged when Gilbert proposes she find work as a seamstress—she’s trained to be a teacher, not a manual... (full context)
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...fact, her teachers in Jamaica always commended her baking skills. Acquainted with Hortense’s culinary skills, Gilbert tactfully tries to dissuade her from this plan, but ends up teasing her again, and... (full context)
Chapter 52: Bernard
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...hear the Josephs tramping up the stairs, and they find him in the room. Annoyed, Gilbert tells Bernard that he pays rent in order to have privacy, and Bernard retorts that... (full context)
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Aghast, Gilbert asks why Queenie never told him about this and says he’ll only take orders from... (full context)
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...that she tried to make it nice, Bernard sneers that she “could try harder.” Enraged, Gilbert shouts at him and starts pushing. Just then, Queenie arrives, out of breath from the... (full context)
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...try to restrain their husbands. Suddenly, Queenie doubles over and howls in pain. Bernard and Gilbert both try to carry her out of the room. When Queenie screams “get off me,”... (full context)
Chapter 53: Hortense
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...demonstrate this to Queenie, she strips off her gloves and boils a pot of water. Gilbert and Bernard are banging on the door, but she calmly tells them it’s a little... (full context)
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...entranced with the little boy, doesn’t care that her baby isn’t white. Suddenly she hears Gilbert’s voice, demanding to know what’s happening, and Bernard stuffily telling Gilbert not to block the... (full context)
Chapter 54: Gilbert
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To Gilbert’s astonishment, Hortense emerges from Queenie’s room covered in blood. Haughtily informing Bernard that he can... (full context)
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Bernard also makes this assumption; before Gilbert can open his mouth to explain, the older man shoves him in the hall and... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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When he gets outside, Gilbert realizes that he too is covered in blood from Bernard’s attack. He needs to find... (full context)
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As Gilbert approaches, a car pulls up beside Hortense and the passenger door opens. “Ever polite to... (full context)
Chapter 56: Gilbert
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Gilbert hears a knock on the door and answers warily, assuming it’s Bernard. Instead, he finds... (full context)
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Winston or Kenneth asks Gilbert to live in the house he’s just purchased. If Gilbert helps to fix it up... (full context)
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Taking a detour in his post office van, Gilbert visits the new house. He’s happy to see the high ceilings, big windows, and large... (full context)
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After tidying the house, Gilbert brings Hortense to visit, nervous about her reaction. Carefully, she walks around the first room... (full context)
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That night, Gilbert folds himself into the armchair to sleep as usual. When Hortense calls out to him,... (full context)
Chapter 58: Queenie
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Gilbert informs Bernard that he and Hortense are leaving. Although both men end up shouting insults... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...with her childbirth. She offers to give them some furniture for their new house, but Gilbert refuses to take any of Bernard’s things. (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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Hortense and Gilbert are in shock, but Queenie pleads earnestly for them to bring baby Michael up as... (full context)
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Turning back to Gilbert and Hortense, Queenie says that she trusts them to raise baby Michael, and that she... (full context)
Chapter 59: Hortense
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Gilbert tries to argue with Queenie, telling her that no one can take care of the... (full context)
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Gilbert and Bernard stand to face each other, heedless of Hortense’s pleas that they be quiet... (full context)
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Exasperated, Gilbert tells Bernard that his problem is that his white skin makes him think he’s better... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Gilbert picks up the baby and hands him to Bernard, then takes Hortense’s hand and pulls... (full context)
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Holding Gilbert’s hand, Hortense tells him that she too was given away as a baby, because of... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)