Small Island

Small Island

by

Andrea Levy

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Hortense Roberts Character Analysis

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, Alberta. Raised as an outsider by her father’s cousins, Philip and Martha Roberts who prize status and respectability above all else, Hortense learns to value their world while also feeling insecure about her place in it as a illegitimate child of low birth. As a young woman, she attends a colonial teaching college, where she imbibes the narrative of British colonial superiority. Her craving for respectability and her worship of Britain lead her to immigrate to London, but the hostile and racist society she finds forces her to reevaluate her preconceptions of Britain. At the beginning of the novel, Hortense is often stuck-up about manners. She’s also self-centered, betraying her best friend Celia to marry Celia’s fiancé, Gilbert Joseph, and taking no pains to understand or empathize with her new husband. However, as an embattled immigrant develops new wisdom and flexibility—for example, she learns to appreciate her unpolished but loving husband, rather than scramble for acceptance from British people who look down on her. Later, Hortense singlehandedly delivers Queenie’s baby and then adopts it, displaying new empathy and acceptance of unconventional circumstances. Even though she’s still struggling for a foothold in British society, at the end of the novel, Hortense has achieved a respectful and loving marriage and embarks on life as a new mother. She emerges as a mature and warm-hearted woman, maintaining her dignity and generous spirit in the face of the prejudice she faces every day.

Hortense Roberts Quotes in Small Island

The Small Island quotes below are all either spoken by Hortense Roberts or refer to Hortense Roberts. 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 3: Hortense Quotes

With such a countenance there was a chance of a golden life for I. What, after all, could Alberta give? Bare black feet skipping over stones. If I was given to my father’s cousins for upbringing, I could learn to read and write and perform all my times tables. And more. I could become a lady worthy of my father, wherever he might be.

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Lovell Roberts, Alberta
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4: Hortense Quotes

I could understand why it was of the greatest importance to her that slavery should not return. Her skin was so dark. But mine was not of that hue—it was the color of warm honey. No one would think to enchain someone such as I. All the world knows what that rousing anthem declares: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Celia Langley
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 33: Hortense Quotes

For this dismal garment, which I had taken to be her dressing gown, was her good outside coat […] She look on me distasteful, up and down. I was dressed as a woman such as I should be when visiting the shops in England. My coat was clean, my gloves freshly washed and a hat upon my head. But Mrs. Bligh stare on me as if something was wrong with my apparel, before telling me once more, “I’m not worried about what busybodies say. I don’t mind being seen in the street with you.”

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Queenie Buxton
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

She think me a fool that does not know what is bread? But my mind could not believe what my eye had seen. That English people would buy their bread in this way. This man was patting on his red head and wiping his hand down his filthy white coat. Cha, why he no lick the bread first before giving it to me to eat?

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Queenie Buxton
Page Number: 275
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 53: Hortense Quotes

And I said to myself, Hortense, come, this is a gift from the Lord—life. What price is a little disgust on your best dress? I decided to pay it no mind.

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Queenie Buxton, Baby Michael
Page Number: 400
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

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:

Michael Joseph would know his mother not from the smell of boiling milk, a whispered song or bare black feet but from the remembered taste of salt tears. Those tears that on that day dripped, one at a time, from her eye, over his lips and on to his tongue.

Related Characters: Hortense Roberts (speaker), Queenie Buxton, Baby Michael
Page Number: 437
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Small Island LitChart as a printable PDF.
Small Island PDF

Hortense Roberts Character Timeline in Small Island

The timeline below shows where the character Hortense Roberts appears in Small Island. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Hortense
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Hortense recalls that her old friend Celia Langley used to daydream about moving to England and... (full context)
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Hortense rings the bell several times while adjusting her coat and hat. A disheveled English woman... (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 joy.” However, when... (full context)
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Eventually, a dock porter helps Hortense find a taxi. Hortense speaks formal English and won pronunciation prizes as a schoolgirl, so... (full context)
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Now, Gilbert comes running down the stairs. Hortense hasn’t seen him for so long that she hardly recognizes him. He’s happy to see... (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 show her the... (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... (full context)
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The two men struggle up the stairs with the trunk, only to find Hortense haughtily directing them where to place it. In typical Jamaican fashion, Kenneth interrogates Hortense on... (full context)
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...for the gas meter. In truth, he’d been asleep when he was supposed to meet Hortense, having just finished a twelve hour shift at work. He hasn’t cleaned the room, and... (full context)
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Gilbert is embarrassed that he’s so unprepared. When Hortense runs her hand along the mantel, he’s chastened to see that her glove is blackened... (full context)
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Gilbert tells Hortense that, instead of a real kitchen, she’ll have to cook their meals on the tiny... (full context)
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When Hortense returns, Gilbert explains that she can also use the chamber pot under the bed. However,... (full context)
Chapter 3: Hortense
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In a flashback, Hortense describes her childhood. Her father, Lovell Roberts, is a “government man,” well-known and almost worshipped... (full context)
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Alberta’s mother, Miss Jewel, takes the young Hortense to her cousins’ house. Alberta agrees to move to Cuba, while Miss Jewel stays to... (full context)
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As a young girl, Hortense sits quietly in the henhouse and watches the hens lay eggs. Michael comes to find... (full context)
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...home to attend boarding school. While Mr. Philip chides Michael about remembering his religious principles, Hortense pinches herself so as not to cry. Michael brags that he’s going to learn about... (full context)
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After Michael leaves, Hortense spends more time with Miss Jewel, helping her with the chores. Miss Jewel has a... (full context)
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When Hortense turns fifteen, she finishes school and goes to work at a private school for children... (full context)
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Hortense is fascinated by Mrs. Ryder, the “whitest woman [she] had ever seen.” Everyone in the... (full context)
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While Hortense is working at the Ryders’ school, Michael returns home. Mrs. Ryder gives Hortense an old... (full context)
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In the following days, Hortense analyzes Michael’s every action for evidence that he reciprocates her feelings. Eager to show off,... (full context)
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When Hortense returns to work a few days after Michael’s arrival, Michael escorts her to the schoolhouse.... (full context)
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Some days later, a hurricane strikes the town. Hortense and Mrs. Ryder are alone in the school, preparing the building for the storm. Mrs.... (full context)
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When the rain finally abates, Hortense runs out of the school, only to find Mr. Ryder’s car “wrapped around the base... (full context)
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By the time Hortense returns home, the entire town is gossiping about the incipient scandal. Miss Ma is in... (full context)
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In the aftermath of the scandal, Mrs. Ryder leaves the island, while Hortense closes up the school. A local newspaper publishes an article suggesting that Michael may have... (full context)
Chapter 4: Hortense
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Sometime later, Hortense finally leaves Savannah-La-Mar to attend teacher-training college in Kingston, catching a bumpy ride in the... (full context)
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...The principal, Miss Morgan, has a calm and gentle voice, but her gargoyle’s smile makes Hortense fear her. (full context)
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That night, Hortense dreams that Michael is holding out his hand to her with a scorpion on his... (full context)
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At night, Celia sits on Hortense’s bed and knits socks for soldiers while the two girls gossip. Celia advises her on... (full context)
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Soon, Hortense becomes an apprentice teacher at a government school. Her first class has sixty pupils, and... (full context)
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One afternoon, Celia picks Hortense up from school. At first, her friend looks sad, but when she sees Hortense she... (full context)
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Hortense wonders aloud why so many men have to fight, and Celia responds gravely that if... (full context)
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...to soldiers they know; Celia wonders aloud which ones are wearing her socks. She tells Hortense dreamily that one day she’ll move to England and have a house with a doorbell.... (full context)
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...the confused airman, is humiliated. Eventually, Celia’s mother runs away from the parade. Celia and Hortense have to chase her and escort her home against her will. (full context)
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When she returns to her college, Hortense is summoned to Miss Morgan’s office. Hortense is sure that she’s in trouble for running... (full context)
Chapter 5: Hortense
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Years later, after the war has ended, Hortense is walking home from the market when she thinks she sees Michael cycling down the... (full context)
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Hortense has been waiting for Michael to come home since the war ended, unwilling to believe... (full context)
Chapter 6: Hortense
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Hortense covets a job at the prestigious Church of England school, where all the students are... (full context)
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Hortense boards with a white family, the Andersons. She thought they would be a “respectable family,”... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Celia confides to Hortense that she’s courting a former RAF soldier. She retells her new boyfriend’s thrilling tales about... (full context)
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Hortense frequently accompanies Celia on outings with Gilbert. Gilbert loves to joke with the two women,... (full context)
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Feeling angry and left out, Hortense reminds Celia innocently that she’ll have to take her mother as well. When Celia says... (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... (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... (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 to England,... (full context)
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...article about the Empire Windrush, a ship leaving for England in a month. He tells Hortense about it, despondent that he can’t pay for his passage. However, Hortense has been saving... (full context)
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Hortense spends her time daydreaming about life in England. She imagines she’ll have a modest but... (full context)
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...Andersons, who ask several times where Celia is. Afterwards, the Andersons host a celebratory dinner; Hortense is still disgusted by their manners, but Gilbert gets along with them well and romps... (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... (full context)
Chapter 8: Hortense
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The night before she leaves Jamaica, Hortense stays in a small boardinghouse near the dock. The landlady cooks her dinner and questions... (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... (full context)
Chapter 18: Gilbert
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...entertains himself by telling her wildly exaggerated stories about England. He’s frightened of her friend, Hortense, who always seems to disdain him no matter how good his stories are. (full context)
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Given Hortense’s evident dislike, Gilbert is shocked when she offers to lend him the money for passage... (full context)
Chapter 19: Gilbert
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...sees a sparkling brooch on the ground. He wants to pick it up, thinking that Hortense would like it, but as he bends down he realizes it’s a cluster of flies... (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. Hortense is shocked... (full context)
Chapter 22: Hortense
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Hortense imagines Celia laughing at her as she looks around the cheerless room and then quickly... (full context)
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Queenie questions Hortense about her marriage; she’s surprised to find that Hortense has only been married for six... (full context)
Chapter 30: Gilbert
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However, on Hortense’s first day in London, Bert gets sick. The other workers refuse to drive with Gilbert,... (full context)
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When Gilbert arrives home, having forgotten all about his new wife, he finds Hortense scrubbing their room on her hands and knees. He’s feeling so angry and humiliated that... (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... (full context)
Chapter 32: Gilbert
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...Another was kicked out of church because of his skin color. He knows that when Hortense realizes the realities of her new life, she will lose her haughtiness and pride. (full context)
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Gilbert buys two portions of fish and chips and brings them back to Hortense so she can understand that a chip is really a fried potato. He tells her... (full context)
Chapter 33: Hortense
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Meeting Queenie at her door to go to the shops, Hortense is horrified to see the Englishwoman’s dreary coat, at first believing it to be something... (full context)
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Outside, Hortense is astonished to find that every Englishwoman is dressed like Queenie. Queenie explains the concept... (full context)
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Looking inside a draper’s shop, Hortense is surprised to see bolts of cloth lying all over the floor, many of them... (full context)
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In the hardware store, a child points at Hortense and shouts to his mother that she’s black. When they leave, some young men shout... (full context)
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...when they reach the house to find a tall, thin man standing at the doorway. Hortense has never seen him before, but Queenie is speechless and collapses into Hortense’s arms as... (full context)
Chapter 49: Gilbert
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...when Gilbert answers, he’s sure it’s actually Kenneth, because the man doesn’t bother to greet Hortense and immediately starts complaining about Bernard. Queenie’s husband, he says, has insulted him and demanded... (full context)
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Kenneth asks if Hortense will share the dinner she’s cooking, but when he actually smells it, he departs in... (full context)
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Thinking that Hortense might be worried by the news of Bernard, Gilbert tells her not to fret, and... (full context)
Chapter 50: Hortense
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To present herself 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... (full context)
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When Hortense enters the building and finally locates the correct office, the three secretaries stare at her... (full context)
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Trying to maintain her dignity, Hortense announces that she’ll be back when she is qualified to teach; the women roll their... (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 yells at... (full context)
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Hortense begins to cry and tells Gilbert she can’t teach. He guides her to a park... (full context)
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Gilbert offers Hortense a handkerchief which she rejects in favor of her own much cleaner one. She admits... (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.... (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 if he doesn’t really know them, but Gilbert... (full context)
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Hortense wonders what she should do next—she hadn’t once considered the possibility that she wouldn’t be... (full context)
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Hortense is outraged when Gilbert proposes she find work as a seamstress—she’s trained to be a... (full context)
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Hortense suggests that she could work as a cook; in fact, her teachers in Jamaica always... (full context)
Chapter 52: Bernard
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Bernard gestures around the room, calling it a disgrace. When Hortense protests that she tried to make it nice, Bernard sneers that she “could try harder.”... (full context)
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The two men seem on the verge of blows, and Queenie and Hortense each try to restrain their husbands. Suddenly, Queenie doubles over and howls in pain. Bernard... (full context)
Chapter 53: Hortense
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Downstairs, Queenie makes Hortense lock the door and slide a chair under the handle. Hortense begs her to call... (full context)
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Hortense knows nothing about giving birth, and she awkwardly pats Queenie’s hand while choking back tears... (full context)
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Queenie’s contractions are coming more frequently now, and Hortense reluctantly opens her legs to examine the baby’s progress; she’s pleased to see the head... (full context)
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Hortense hands the slimy baby to its mother, quietly pleased that she hasn’t stained her wedding... (full context)
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Hortense approaches the baby, which Queenie has swaddled in a towel. On closer inspection, she’s astounded... (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 enter, she... (full context)
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...but Bernard just stares at him in mute hate, so Gilbert walks upstairs to confront Hortense. (full context)
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As he reaches the top of the stairs, Hortense emerges, perfectly clad in hat and gloves. She tells Gilbert that he disgusts her, informs... (full context)
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...realizes that he too is covered in blood from Bernard’s attack. He needs to find Hortense and get inside before someone assumes he’s a criminal and calls the police. He sees... (full context)
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As Gilbert approaches, a car pulls up beside Hortense and the passenger door opens. “Ever polite to strangers,” Hortense bends down to hear what... (full context)
Chapter 56: Gilbert
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...weekend, and watches over the other rooms that he plans to rent out, Gilbert and Hortense can live there without paying rent. Gilbert knows that this can only be Winston, and... (full context)
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...to see the high ceilings, big windows, and large garden; the flat where he and Hortense would live has its own kitchen and bathroom. However, the house really does need fixing... (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 and peers... (full context)
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That night, Gilbert folds himself into the armchair to sleep as usual. When Hortense calls out to him, he assumes she wants him to chase a mouse and pretends... (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 at each other, Bernard is pleased,... (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... (full context)
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Clumsily, Queenie thanks Hortense for helping her with her childbirth. She offers to give them some furniture for their... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Hortense and Gilbert are in shock, but Queenie pleads earnestly for them to bring baby Michael... (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 prefers giving... (full context)
Chapter 59: Hortense
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Hortense never could have dreamed that one day a white woman would be begging her to... (full context)
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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... (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... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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Holding Gilbert’s hand, Hortense tells him that she too was given away as a baby, because of the color... (full context)
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Hortense watches Queenie as she sadly packs up baby Michael’s clothes, kissing them as she folds... (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 sewn into... (full context)
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Without any regret, Hortense closes the door of their wretched little room. At Queenie’s door she pauses and knocks;... (full context)