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 these characters try to force the world around them to conform to their expectations of it, and all are unsuccessful. By the end of the novel, everyone realizes that they can’t count on their society to make them feel at home; instead, they arrive at a sense of belonging by forging close personal relationships. While this conclusion is empowering in its insistence on the agency of individuals (especially immigrants) to carve out strong communities, it’s also a demoralizing reflection on the wider British society that refuses to accommodate diversity.
All the characters, but most importantly Hortense and Gilbert, feel out of place in the societies in which they’re born. Trained rigorously as a teacher, Hortense finds few opportunities to work in Jamaica and thinks she will find better and more rewarding jobs in the British school system. As an RAF soldier, Gilbert experiences life in Britain and all it has to offer; when he returns home after the war, Jamaica’s stalling economy and his cousin Elwood’s ill-considered business schemes fill him with dread. Dreaming of a career as a lawyer, Gilbert thinks he can only fulfill his aspirations outside his country. Importantly, Hortense and Gilbert’s feelings of displacement are caused by their education within a colonial structure, which has taught them to aspire to British lives and careers without building a Jamaican society in which such lives are accessible.
Similarly, as a young girl, Queenie is revolted by her family’s butchering business even though everyone around her is completely committed to it. Although she marries Bernard to secure a different life and escape these feelings of displacement, Queenie also feels out of place in the role of traditional, submissive housewife Bernard expects her to play. Before the war, Bernard carves out a place for himself in society by pursuing a modest career as a clerk and rigidly adhering to conventional norms. When he returns, he finds that his career isn’t valued any longer, and his marriage is on shaky ground. He can’t even feel superior to people of color, as he did during the war, because they’re living in his neighborhood and in his very house. Although Bernard’s mentality is deeply unsympathetic, he does experience similar feelings to his wife and tenants, showing that displacement isn’t limited to immigrants or other marginalized groups.
To combat these feelings of displacement, the main characters try to force the community they live in to conform to their expectations of it. Gilbert repeatedly applies to professional jobs from which he’s rejected on the basis of his race, believing that if he simply tries hard enough to belong in the British society he imagines for himself he’ll eventually succeed. Similarly, Hortense is deaf to Gilbert’s explanations that her teaching certificate is valueless in Britain; despite the racism she experiences from her first day in Britain, it’s not until she applies for a job and is rudely rejected that she realizes she can’t, through sheer will, make Britain into the paradise of opportunity she imagined.
An unusually open-minded woman, Queenie wants her neighborhood to be more welcoming towards war refugees and immigrants of color. She imagines that by accepting these people as tenants herself, and defending them from her bigoted neighbors, she can force the neighborhood into a more tolerant attitude. Of course, this is unsuccessful, and neighborhood feeling towards Queenie’s black tenants only worsens throughout the novel.
Bernard’s behavior on this front is the most egregious. Incensed to find people of color living in his neighborhood and his own house, Bernard immediately ejects all the tenants, as if by doing so he can restore both his neighborhood and his own mind to its comfortable pre-war state. When Queenie aggressively defends the tenants, Bernard realizes he’s no longer the undisputed master of his house; now he has to contend with his wife’s new independence and, when she delivers a biracial baby, to accept that the segregated society he imagines is gone forever.
Ultimately, after striving for acceptance from a society that doesn’t live up to their expectations, all the characters learn to carve out enclaves where they can achieve a sense of belonging denied to them by society at large. When Bernard arrives home and destroys Gilbert’s hopes of living peacefully in a white neighborhood, it’s Winston, one of the Jamaican tenants, who, through the Jamaican immigrant community, finds them a real house they can afford. The Josephs’ change of housing shows that they’re achieving security not by trying to become more British but by cultivating a friendly community within the generally hostile British society.
Meanwhile, Bernard does the opposite. In announcing his intention to move to the suburbs, he’s retreating from the newly heterogeneous city into an all-white enclave, just as many of his neighbors do. While he can’t rid the city of immigrants, he can live among other people who share his intolerance and recreate in miniature the society that’s since vanished with the war. The only person who doesn’t find a sense of belonging is Queenie, who can’t create or envision any community that reflects her own attitude of tolerance and compassion.
While the Josephs’ move represents perseverance and ingenuity in the face of steep opposition to their presence in Britain, Bernard’s shows cowardice and a redoubled embrace of his own intolerance. These disparate characters are linked by the similar feelings they experience, but their differing responses drive them apart. Through this contrast, the novel valorizes the struggle of immigrants to create communities where they can feel secure and valued, while also warning that bigotry can also survive in closed communities, even if the larger society around them is slowly becoming more progressive.
Displacement and Belonging ThemeTracker
Displacement and Belonging Quotes in Small Island
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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?
The mechanics, the teachers, the clerks who were all left out here sat brooding on their worth to a country they loved. Wondering what sort of Britain was being built without us. Forgotten war, forgotten army, forgotten again.
Still he went on: “I am not one of those people who wish the English out of India. I like you. Are you not protecting us all this time from the filthy Japs with their slitty eyes? Your British bulldog understands that there is nothing worse than foreigners invading your land […] A dreadful thing to have foreign muddy boots stamping all over your soil. Do you not think?
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.
The war was fought so people might live amongst their own kind. Quite simple. Everyone had a place. England for the English and the West Indies for these colored people. Look at India. The British knew fair play. Leave India to the Indians. That’s what we did.
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.”