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 mistakes of the past threaten to destroy the relationships of the present. While the arrival of Queenie’s baby seems like one more crisis, it actually affords all four characters the opportunity to address and overcome past wrongs. However, by eventually adopting the baby, it’s Hortense and Gilbert who embrace this chance for redemption, while Queenie and Bernard let it slip away. Through this contrast, the novel argues that in order to improve their future, people must actively confront and acknowledge their mistakes in the past.
By the time the baby is born, all the main characters have behaved badly, mostly in regard to each other. In a remarkable display of insensitivity, Hortense betrays her best friend Celia in order to marry Gilbert and secure her passage to England, where she consistently berates him for failing to provide the posh life she imagined. Her self-centeredness often detracts from her strong character. For his part, Gilbert marries Hortense solely because she can provide the money for his passage to England. During the war, Queenie cheats on her husband; later, she remarks that she “made her own bed,” acknowledging that her pregnancy contributes to the bad state of affairs between her and Bernard. Bernard is a notably bad husband, expecting Queenie to submissively comply with his every demand and deserting her for two years after the war. Moreover, in his unmitigated rudeness to people of color (namely the Josephs), he epitomizes the deep-seated racism and prejudice that pervades Britain.
While the birth of an illegitimate, biracial child is a disaster by the standards of the time, it immediately forces the adults around it to change their behavior. Delivering the baby single-handedly, Hortense is forced into a generosity and spontaneity she rarely displays. In the process, her best dress, which represents the stiff English decorum to which she clings, is spattered by afterbirth. However, Hortense uncharacteristically remarks that the baby is “gift from the Lord” and thus worth “a little disgust on your best dress.” In a rare moment of openness, Queenie shares her experience and feelings during the war with Bernard, who “listened to me right through,” although afterwards he characteristically has “absolutely nothing to say.” Even Bernard looks past his racism—at least initially—to become attached to the baby. His tenderness towards the child leads to a sincere conversation with Queenie, in which he discloses the horror of his imprisonment in India.
However, in the end, Queenie and Bernard quail before the task of raising a black baby, while Hortense and Gilbert step up to adopt it. In this final confrontation, the Josephs redeem themselves and their marriage, while the Blighs fracture theirs forever. Surprisingly, when Queenie first suggests that the Josephs raise her baby, Bernard is the most vocal opponent, saying staunchly that the baby needs his mother. This moment of “caring” is the closest he comes to overcoming his previous racism and redeeming himself. However, a minute later when Gilbert moves to comfort a crying Queenie, Bernard demands that he remove his “filthy black hands,” showing that Bernard can’t overcome his past and is in no position to care for a black son. Queenie admits that she also can’t face the social stigma of raising a biracial child, saying, “I haven’t got the guts for it.” Her position is more heart-wrenching than Bernard’s, and she truly believes it’s better for her baby to grow up with black parents. Even so, this moment represents a failure of courage for her as well, a final inability to live up to the open-mindedness she’s championed throughout the book.
On the other hand, when they decide together to adopt the baby, Gilbert and Hortense become a generous and committed family, redeeming their past self-interested behavior. For Hortense, this moment is especially relevant to overcoming her own past. She’s initially reluctant to adopt Queenie’s baby because as a child, she herself was given to another family for a better future, and as a result was raised as an outsider in an unloving household. In her final decision, Hortense vows to give this baby an experience different from her own, thus easing the memory of her own painful childhood.
Redemption Quotes in Small Island
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.
I want to shoot him […] but he’s still smiling and I start to think, Oh, well, maybe he’s not so bad. Until I see his sword flash. Light cracking off it in a spark. I knew we were in danger. But suddenly Queenie sits up in bed, turns to the door, looks the Jap straight in they eye and says, “Hello.” Just like that. Hello. Like she’s talking to a neighbor. Hello. As if she’d known him all her life. “Hello. Come in.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.