Small Island

Small Island


Andrea Levy

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Themes and Colors
Manners and Civilization Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Redemption Theme Icon
Displacement and Belonging Theme Icon
Marriage and Women’s Roles Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Small Island, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Manners and Civilization

Until their arrival in England, Hortense and Gilbert believe that the “mother country” is more advanced and inherently superior to their own society in Jamaica; as colonial subjects, the best they can do is emulate British norms and hope to assimilate into British society. However, upon experiencing life in England, the Josephs realize that the vaunted civilization they’ve been taught to admire doesn’t exist, or at least is inaccessible to immigrants of color. The novel…

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Race and Prejudice

As black people in societies controlled by white institutions, Hortense and Gilbert’s daily interactions and the possibilities of their lives are framed by racism. While the novel focuses on the Josephs’ experience of racial prejudice in England, it also offers glimpses of the way race operates in two other societies: colonial Jamaica and Jim Crow-era America. The remarkable lack of prejudice Gilbert experiences in wartime Britain spurs his decision to immigrate, and suggests that…

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While most of the novel’s main characters are sympathetic to some degree, they’ve all done things in the past of which they’re not proud. By the novel’s climax, when Bernard returns home, Hortense and Gilbert’s marriage of convenience is on the verge of collapse; while Bernard thinks he can resume the marriage he left behind, Queenie’s sudden delivery of an illegitimate child shows that things have changed irrevocably. For all the characters, the…

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Displacement and Belonging

Feelings of displacement plague all the novel’s main characters. As educated young people facing their limited prospects on a colonial island, Hortense and Gilbert feel out of place in their native country of Jamaica and look toward the wider world of England as a place where they can truly thrive. Less central to the novel, Queenie and Bernard’s feelings of displacement in their native society of England echo those of their immigrant tenants. All…

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Marriage and Women’s Roles

At the end of the 1940s, British and Jamaican society are highly restrictive of women, seeking to confine them to marriage and domestic roles. However, while they do spend most of their time within the home (specifically, within Queenie’s home), Hortense and Queenie both chafe against the limiting prospects of domesticity and subservience to their husbands. The women’s failure and refusal to submit to traditional roles causes friction in their marriages. However, while Gilbert

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