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 illustrates this with its often humorous focus on manners. In Jamaica, Hortense and Gilbert learned British etiquette from teachers who insisted this was the only way to become “civilized,” but in their rough and uncouth British neighborhood they discover they’re much more mannerly—and so, according to the colonial narrative, more civilized—than those around them. In fact, despite successfully crafting a narrative of their own superiority, the novel’s British characters often lack not only politeness but kindness and decency, especially in regard to people of color. Ultimately, the novel uses superficial hallmarks of advancement, like manners, to argue that a society’s preoccupation with its own civilization can undermine its fundamental humanity.
In both British and Jamaican communities, institutions and social norms promote the idea that the dominant colonial power is a civilizing influence among its backward colonies. Queenie opens her narrative with a description of visiting the British Empire Exhibition, which recreated tableaus from “every country we British owned.” The exhibition isn’t just a form of entertainment. Through essentially parodying other cultures without explaining them—an older boy, Graham, explains to Queenie that Africans aren’t “civilized” and “only understand drums”—it encourages British viewers to conclude that they are superior and deserve to exercise colonial dominion.
After generations of British rule and propaganda, Jamaican society, especially the educated echelon in which Hortense grows up, is committed to colonial ideology. Although she’s born out of wedlock to a poor mother, because of her light skin Hortense is raised by her father’s cousins, wealthy landowners whose emulation of British customs confers on them social superiority, in the eyes of others and especially their own. Educated in schools run by missionaries, Hortense learns about English history, poetry, and even the English climate rather than about her own country. She also imbibes British etiquette and even worship for British objects, regardless of their actual value. In her first appearance, Hortense remembers her friend Celia’s declaration that “in England I will have a big house with a bell at the front door.” Now Hortense gloats that Queenie’s house has a doorbell because it represents the civilization she’s been taught to admire, even though it’s irrelevant to her life and the difficulties she’ll soon encounter.
As immigrants, Gilbert and especially Hortense realize that they fulfill the etiquette that represents British civilization better than most British natives. On her first shopping trip in England, Hortense wears a trim coat and heels, and she’s astounded at the slovenly housecoats sported by the English women she’s admired from afar all her life. In contrast to Queenie’s assumption that she’s never been in a shop or seen bread before, Hortense recoils from the uncouth baker who handles her bread with his dirty bare hands. Although Hortense’s idea of civilization is predicated on imitation of the British, as far as manners and appearances go, she’s much more civilized than Queenie and her new neighbors. Episodes like this recall Queenie’s description of the British Empire Exhibition. While her teenage chaperones, Emily and Graham, amuse themselves making fun of the black actors in the Africa exhibit, one of the actors speaks to Queenie in perfect English and directs Graham to a toilet, although the boy can’t find it and has to “wee behind some bins.” Although Queenie doesn’t realize it at the time, the man she’s been taught to think of as inferior has learned his British manners better than she has.
The novel doesn’t dwell on moments like these to assert the importance of superficial etiquette. Rather, they show that besides lacking the manners they use as evidence of their advanced civilization, the British often lack the essential kindness and compassion that manners are supposed to denote, especially towards colonial immigrants. While Hortense and Gilbert initially believe that by acting as British as possible they can gain acceptance, they quickly discover that most British citizens are so convinced of their inherent superiority, they’re blind to the fact that, by conventional markers, the Josephs are more civilized than they are. This is especially true of Bernard, who interprets Gilbert’s repeated gestures of civility as impertinence, calling him a “cheeky blighter” when he tries to shake hands, and boorishly shutting the door in response. This surface rudeness underscores deeper personal flaws, like Bernard’s overwhelming arrogance, and foreshadows his future unkindness to his wife. Ultimately, Hortense and Gilbert’s experience in England exposes not only a failure of British manners, but of human kindness. By the end, they’re establishing tenuous security and happiness, but they do so by forging connections among the immigrant community, not as a result of any gesture of welcome from their hosts. If the Josephs carve out a life in England, it will be in spite of British “civilization,” not because of it.
While many of the novel’s characters devote inordinate attention to issues of etiquette, superficial manners are meaningless if they don’t correspond to deeper attributes like kindness and compassion. The novel makes light of etiquette in order to show how arbitrary it is as a metric of one society’s superiority to another. More importantly, the many failures of manners underscore the failures of the values they’re supposed to represent, and argues that regardless of the manners it does or doesn’t display, a society can’t claim to be civilized in the face of the unkindness it so casually dispenses to those who arrive on its shores as immigrants.
Manners and Civilization ThemeTracker
Manners and Civilization Quotes in Small Island
Father said later that this African man I was made to shake hands with would have been a chief or a prince in Africa. Evidently, when they speak English you know that they have learned to be civilized—taught English by the white man, missionaries probably. So Father told me not to worry about having shaken his hand because the African man was most likely a potentate.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
“The cheeky ones,” she told me, “will be Cockneys. You’ll want nothing to do with Cockneys, they’re all jellied eels and kneesups. No, that one’s a gentleman. No spivs or ne’erdowells ever read The Times.”
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.”
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?
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?
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”