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 eventually comes to appreciate his wife’s headstrong and high-minded behavior, after initial resistance, Queenie eventually submits to Bernard’s self-centered vision of their future, even though it makes her feel trapped and unhappy. By the end of the novel, both marriages have reached a state of agreement, but the contrast between the Josephs’ optimism and the Blighs’ dim future argues that purchasing such agreement by fulfilling gender norms won’t lead to happiness.
Hortense is in many ways a conservative and prim woman, but she continually flouts and eventually forces Gilbert to rearrange his expectations for a wife. While she’s sometimes annoyingly obsessed with her rights and status as a wife, it’s clear that she’s married Gilbert not in pursuit of conventional romance, but in order to get to England and pursue her own goal of becoming a teacher. Rather than being oriented around the home, she’s outward-looking and has strong career aspirations. This is underscored by her lack of domesticity; she’s unable to cook for Gilbert when she arrives in England and isn’t interested in learning how.
When Gilbert first tries to sleep with her, Hortense is offended and kicks him out of the bed. Displaying a sexual prudery inherited from her Victorian schoolteachers, on one level Hortense is proving herself committed to a very conservative vision of femininity. However, she’s also showing a strong will and a refusal to obey her husband unthinkingly. When Hortense finally invites Gilbert to share the bed at the end of the novel, it signals that she’s finally ready to begin her marriage, but only after her own period of adjustment and on her own terms. For his part, Gilbert often bemoans his wife’s lack of traditional skills and belittles her unrealistic attempts to secure a teaching position. However, he ultimately comes to her aid; although he can’t find her a job as a teacher, he encourages her in the pursuit, saying that “a teacher you still will be” even if she has to take a menial job in the meantime. His anxiety that Hortense approve of the new house he finds at the end of the novel, contrasted to the peremptory decisions he used to make about their future, shows his appreciation of his “proud, haughty […] even insufferable” wife and his willingness to undertake a marriage of partners.
Seemingly abandoned by her husband and in no hurry to see him return home, Queenie at first seems much more unconventional than Hortense; but by the end of the novel she’s again entrenched in the marriage she thought the war had liberated her from. For most of the novel, Queenie is stationed firmly within the feminine sphere of the home, stewarding her husband’s property and taking care of his father during the war—fulfilling traditional expectations of a wife. At the same time, she makes her home the staging grounds for a domestic revolt, taking in Jamaican immigrants even though she knows Bernard wouldn’t approve, and conducting the first sexually satisfying affair of her life. Bernard’s absence liberates her from marriage while his house, paradoxically, gives her the economic means to become an independent woman.
When Bernard reappears, Queenie resists allowing him to resume the role as head of the family. She banishes him to a guest bedroom and insists that the renters come to her to adjudicate her problems, even though Bernard insists he should be in charge. Bernard’s chagrin that Queenie shouts at him “in front of the coloreds” highlights his wife’s unusual independence and his own anxiety about losing his domestic status. Queenie’s defiance is largely fueled by her secret knowledge that she’s pregnant with a biracial baby, an incredibly transgressive act in her society. However, once she decides to give up the baby, she’s fatalistically resigned to resuming life with Bernard, speaking of their life with “proper decent neighbors out in the suburbs” as if it’s a given, rather than a choice she’s making. Although she loves her son, her realization of the difficulties of raising a black child drive her back to her conventional, repressive marriage.
At the end of the novel, both the Josephs and the Blighs, once almost irreparably divided, are living together and seemingly reconciled. However, while Hortense is settling into a marriage that accepts and values her strong will and sense of independence, Queenie is resuming a relationship against which she’s always chafed, and for which she has to give up her son. The contrast between Hortense’s new optimism and Queenie’s uncertain future happiness argues that while marital concord is important, and compromise between disparate personalities may be required to achieve it, prioritizing domestic security above one’s sense of self is a dangerous gamble.
Marriage and Women’s Roles ThemeTracker
Marriage and Women’s Roles Quotes in Small Island
“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.”
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.
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.
“It would kill you, Bernard,” I said. “Have you thought about all that? Because I have. I’ve done nothing but think about it. And you know what? I haven’t got the guts for it. I thought I would. I should have but I haven’t got the spine. Not for that fight. I admit it, I can’t face it, and I’m his blessed mother.”
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.”
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.