Throughout the novel, doorbells symbolize the superficiality of “civilized manners” and the manifest hypocrisy that underlies them. During Hortense’s stint at teacher’s college, her friend Celia Langley declares that one day she’ll move to England and have a house with a doorbell. For her, the doorbell—a European invention, not used in Jamaica—epitomizes status and success as she’s been taught to view these concepts through her colonial education. From a young age, Celia, Gilbert, and especially Hortense have learned to admire British customs and aspire to British lives without ever questioning their value, thus fostering the belief that British society is inherently superior to their own. When Hortense arrives in England and rings Queenie’s bell, she remembers Celia’s daydream and gloats that she’s the one reaping the benefits of British civilization. However, when she sees the dirty shops and dismal clothes of the people around her, she realizes the British aren’t nearly as mannerly as she’d been led to believe. Moreover, she quickly finds that succeeding in Britain isn’t a matter of having a doorbell or wearing the right clothes; no matter how she behaves, people judge her and discriminate against her based on her race.
At the end of the novel, sharing a bed for the first time, Hortense asks Gilbert playfully if their new house will have a doorbell. However, the question is ironic; the important thing about the house isn’t that it lives up to the civilized customs she’s been taught to worship, but that it belongs to them and provides an escape from the relentless racism of British society. By this point, the doorbell highlights the contrast between Hortense’s initial worship of British civilization and her current mockery of it, showing that she’s learned to find security in relationships, like her marriage, rather than in the rigid and meaningless customs that have so dominated her life.