The plot of the great book seller Small Island (2004) is formed around four characters: Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert and Bernard. Each character has a different past, identity, ideology, dreams and expectations. But they also have one thing in common: all of them change after the war. Although, everyone experiments the war in a different way, all felt affected by it. At this point, all that they have experience before or what they believe in seems lost, with no sense (Gilroy, 2004). This war is not the only factor that makes them feel bizarre and strange.
The England that all believe to know has also changed, it was not the England in which they believe in, in which they had trust once. In this essay I will compare the ideologies and expectations of all the characters before and after the war, making emphasis in the concept of identity related to other conceots such as’ race’ and ‘social class’. The characters can be easily divided in many different ways. One of them is their marital relations: Queenie is married with Bernard, and Hortense is married with Gilbert. Another division can be made by analyzing their origins. The first couple is from Jamaica while the second one is English.
The third division could be separating them by their colour of skin: Queenie and Bernard are white and Gilbert and Hortense are black. Race is an important topic in the whole book and is expressed in the way of ‘color of skin’ (Cinkova, 2010). The colour of skin of the characters makes them ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in the atmosphere of the book. Britain and its ally France was beating against the fascist Germany. How can be possible then that Britain’s attitudes was racist? Why Britain makes differences between the race white and black and at the same time tried to suffocate the fire of fascism?
The reason is simple, Great Britain was not used to the ‘aliens’ or ‘strangers’ before the war. Their imperialistic ideology could not see the pain and suffering that their colonies were living. For the British all the colonies were the same: colonies. They didn’t believe that ,in a way, their identities were linked. Here we find a double reality: the reality of the colonies and that one of the British. For the British, their superiority was evident because they had a ‘Great Empire’ formed by many colonies who had bowed their heads to Great Britain’s power.
These colonies were not just weak, but also inferior. This inferiority is the same that the fascism was trying to end up with. Jews and black were persecuted by Germans while in England black were repudiated and treated as ‘foreigners’ and ‘inferior’. The ‘Emperialistic ideas’ were strongly based in the term of ‘nation’. The definition of Anderson of nation as ‘imagined political community’ helps to understand the situation in England. England lived a dream after the industrialization and her expansion in the other continents These two factors made England the first potency of the World.
English people were very proud of their achievements and their ‘superiority’. However, all this disappear after the World War II, when England lost its position as a first potency to give way to the United States. Before the war, the Imperialistic ideals dominated in Great Britain while the reality of the colonies was quite the opposite. The colonized loved the ‘mother country’ and had expectations on her. Their dream was come to her one day and being welcome by her. Even if they ancestors had been colonized some time ago, the mother country had done lots of things for them.
In the book this double reality is represented by the two couples. Bernard and Queenie represent the Emperialistic ideas while Hortense and Gilbert embody the colonies’ naive ideology before the World War II. However the reality changes after the war for all the characters. The ideology of a ‘Great Empire’ disappears because, even if Great Britain had won the war, England was not the same that they remembered, its prestige had vanished: the people from the colonies were migrating in mass to England; the whiteness was finished to give a way to ‘multiculturalism’ (Gilroy).
In addition, Great Britain had lost its place at the first potent of the world to give way to the United States of America, which had been its colony once. The ideology of a welcoming ‘mother country’ had also finished and the reality after the war was not so beautiful and hopeful for the colonized. Their dreams disappeared and were replaced by a desperate desire being integrated and not repudiated. So, the situation in England was not easy for any of the characters and it supposed a psychological and an identity change for all of them.
Hortense, the Jamaican woman of the novel, has been grown up in Jamaica by his uncle, who had a very good status in the country. We can appreciate in her words that she’s very proud of living with him even if she wouldn’t see her mother again. In addition, her father is for her an idol, someone who deserved her admiration but no words of admiration go out from her mouth when she talks about her poor mother. This is the first time when Hortense shows us how important money and social class is for her. Her education, in a school of ‘ladies’ with ‘white gloves’ and ‘hats’, also influence in the construction of her identity.
She then becomes a presuntuous girl, with high expectations. The first time we see she has great expectations when she talks about her colour of her skin: ‘My complexion was as light as his, the colour of warm honey […] With such a countenance, there was a chance of a golden life for I’. As we can appreciate, she links her future social status with her color of skin so, in a way she’s aware of the world in which she is living, not necessarily of the fascism in Europe or the nationalism in contries such as England, but maybe she has observate this distinctions of ‘more black’ or ‘less black’ in her own country.
The experience of the war does not affect her in a direct way. However, it seems that Levy wanted to assure that all the characters suffered the experience of war. If it wasn’t that the case, Hortense could be the only one that was not affected by it because she was in Jamaica and didn’t come to England until the war was finished. Nevertheless, her companion of childhood, her cousin, who she profoundly admires, goes to the war and disappears of the map. One officer tells the family to think of him as dead and this breaks her heart and her expectations of a future with him.
However, a Michael appears in the novel later on, and is the father of the new child of Queenie. If this Michael is the same that grows up with Hortense is impossible to know, as Levy does not clear it up. In a way, Hortense is a product of the environment in which she grows up. She comes to her conclusions by seing her environment and deducting it. Her identity is immovable and with a very fixed bases. Until the end of the book she doesn’t give a opportunity to Gilbert, her husband. Her prejudices carry on during the whole book, but at the end they give pass to some kind of humanity and acceptance.
She discovers that a man of low class as Gilbert is as deserving of respect as those ‘ladies’ in her school. At the same time, she discovers that high class people, as Queenie and Bernard, can be as pathetic as any low class person. So, social class is not important anymore for her, she is a new Hortense. Gilbert, the character of the novel with a golden tooth, is almost the opposite of Hortense. He’s from a low social class, but he is full of moral values. He is aware of the situation in Jamaica and wants to change it.
The first time he sees Hortense, he is attending a local discourse of the nonconformists of Jamaica. He feels attracted by her and at the same time he knows that she is not from his social class, and therefore she is unprotected in the atmosphere of rebellion. Gilbert, is not a person with prejudices and gives opportunities to everybody. He dreams of England and wants to help the ‘mother country’ when she’s in trouble. So, he decides to take part of the RAF in the war. He, had great expectations and thought that he would be welcome and thanked for helping England in the war.
However, the reality falls on him. Black people were ignored and bad treated in the army. Curiously, it is his color of skin which helps him in the war because nobody thought him to be a danger. It is in the war when he first felt disenchanted with England. After the war, his identity and perceptions starts to change. The Jamaica in which he’s grown up seems ‘small’ to him. The title of the book ‘Small island’ refers to the perception of the characters about her countries after the war. What they once thought ‘big’ seems smaller for them.
Consequently, Gilbert, with no family to retain him, dreams of spreading, new things, new opportunities, developing, and England is the country who could fill his new necessities. His marriage with Hortense is the passage for both to England. She’d lent him money in order that he looks for a job in England for bringing her too. Once again in England, Gilbert starts to appreciate the rush after-war experience in England. Looking for a job and a house is very difficult even for a white man. He has no money and ,in addition, he is ‘black’.
These two factors, linked very closely could have meant his end in the ‘melancholia’ (Gilroy, 2004) of the post-war England. British people had a discriminating attitude towards black people, whose slogan had become: “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”,without considering that many of them have fought in the war. Gilbert, seing the British racist attitudes, takes the decision of adapting himself and takes the position of ‘passive resistance’. He’s forced to change his identity as a rebel and determinate man to survive in this racist atmosphere. Surviving is more important than defend the true and important causes such as ’equality’ or ‘respect’.
This character is an example of inte rnal force, such as ‘Bartleby’ in the Herman’s Melville novel. Both characters ‘prefer not to’ say anything instead of reacting against the social environment in which they’re living, as they think they would lose the only chances of achieve better things that they have. Bernard is presented as a pathetic character at the beginning of the book. Through the words of Queenie we laugh at him. Bernard is not only unattractive and unexciting, as she reveals that her sexual relations with him are banal and not pleasant, but he’s also a coward.
So, we know how the identity of Bernard is through the words of her wife. When the war starts, the first thought of the man is to stay in refuge to be protecting of bombing. But, suddenly, he seems to be full of pride and braveness and he joins the RAF. His experiences of war are the first narrations in first person of this character. We can know through his passages, that he’s a conservative character, who defends the Empire ideology and values. Curiously, he is sent to India, a colony of the Empire at that time.
However, the situation in India awakes in him a sense of survival, as we have seen in Gilbert. The difference is that Gilbert, who belonged to a low class, was less reticent and has less ‘ego’ in words of survival. Bernard has not the spirit of rebellion that Gilbert has either. He thinks that rebellion in the colonies is not accurate, as he considers them inferior and unable to govern themselves. One irony of the book is when Bernard crosses an Indian who tells him that England has made a lot for them and confirms Bernard that the colonies are not able to be governed and ruled by themselves.
In this passage we know that Bernard has acquired the Imperialistic values and at the same time that the Indian is naive and is not aware of the cruelty of the British in the colonies. However, the passage can also be interpreted as an humoristic one, who would show that the Indian is laughing at Bernard’s ideology and blindness of the reality of the colonies. In this interpretation, the Indian, reminds us of Gilbert, the character who uses humor to forget about the reality. After an incident with a prostitute, the cowardice invades Bernard again. He becomes paranoids when he thinks he’s got an incurable illness.
However, after realising that it was not an illness, he comes back to England. The England he sees is different from the one he remembered. The national identity was suffering a perennial crisis (Gilroy, 2004). People from the colonies are everywhere, even in his house. In addition, her wife seems to have changed, she gets on well with the blacks. At first he is not able to say anything, traumatised by all he has gone through before arriving to England. However, when he talks at the end of the book, we see a different Bernard. This new Bernard does not matter about races or social classes anymore, this Bernard looks passing hrough the difficulties as better as possible. In a way, we can say that Bernard matures and faces the problems that he and her wife have. He is predisposed to accept the child and try to start a new life with the baby. He takes this decision even if he knows that they would be critisized by her neighbours. But the events change and Queenie implores Hortense and Gilbert to take the baby with them. Although we could not say that Bernard becames tolerant with black people, he matures and a kind of ‘acceptance’ of the reality starts to grow up in him.
Gilroy’s ‘melancholia’ invades this character as he remembers how was England before and what it’s become. Queenie, whose real name is Victoria, as the other three characters suffers a methamorphosis. Her change, however, is more complicated to explain. Since she was young she felt interested by the whole Empire, as the passage in the festival of the Empire shows. She wants to know more about the colonies, about the people that live there. However, the people around her during her childhood and later his husband, Bernar, influence her way of thinking.
She belongs to a middle-high class who is full of prejudices agains the people from the colonies. In a way she takes part of the Empirialistic ideology. However, she is more open-minded than the most of people of her social class. She is a caritative and empathic character, that can see far away from the Imperialistic ideology. During the war, she helps the people that have lost their belongings and their homes. However, this act of kindness could also be seen as a way to feel useless as her life seems not very exciting: having unpleasant sexual relations with her wife and expecting more of life than being married with him.
During the war, she feels the necessity of renting the chambers of her house to black people. Nevertheless, her attitude towards them is not mean. The first black man she sees near is Michael, who becomes essential in Queenie’s transition. She, who always felt curiosity for black people, goes furhter when she has sexual relations with this black man. The sensations that she thought asleep, awake in her. Passion and desire invade her for the first time. These desires take form of a baby that she is very proud of. However, it is not until the end of the book that we know that she is pregnant, as she hides it to everyone.
Surprisingly, when she gives birth to the baby she makes the decision of not wanting to look after him. To the wonder of all, she begs Hortense and Gilbert to take care of the baby, standing in her knees. On the one hand, Queenie becomes a realistic person that knows very well the problems that she will have to face if she and her husband take care of the baby. On the other hand, she could be considered a coward because she didn’t even want to face her problem and wants others to solve it. Another interpretation could be that Queenie regrets the infidelity to her husband. Queenie is a double face character.
Two Queenies are represented in the book: the Queenie that loves black people and the Queenie that feels ashamed of her relationship with them. These two Queenies complement each other, one cannot be without the other. The racist Queenie is a product of her chilhood and family and the tolerant But, what are the reasons of Queenie ‘the tolerant’? An absent husband thought lost? A necessity of coexisting with black people for money? Or, a real change in Queenie’s mind? Does Queenie really realize that she and her society is racist? Does she wants to be different from all of them?
We would feel inclinated to think that until she is by her own during the war she is not able or free to think by herself. Before the war, Queenie had always been oppressed, firstly, by her parents, later, by her aunt and ,finally, by her husband. When she has sex with Michael she feels free, new, the new Queenie has awakened. A Queenie that wants to feel free and want everybody to feel the same way. We could think that she helps the black people because they remind her of herselve before knowing Michael. Moreover, the return of her husband would mean for Queenie that her freedom would disappear.
When she gives birth the baby, the new Queenie feels happy but the old one presses her to give the baby, reminding her the reality that she lives and has always lived: ‘England is not a tolerant country’. Consequently, the new Queenie comes back to her prison to never come back. Conclusion The four characters of Small Island have a marked and different identity. Each identity is a product of their experiences in the past. However, all the characters suffer a methamorphosis or a change. Their identity is in all of the cases forced to be changed because the circumstances have changed.
In addition, according to Usha Mahadevan (2010) ‘the shocks of circumstance force the protagonists to face reality’. A new period starts in the lives of the characters, all of them start from zero. The most important thing is not the social class or the race anymore. The most essential thing is to survive and to be happy. All the characters are at the same level at the end of the book, the high class characters deserve the same consideration than the low class ones, as the important thing is to be brave morally and struggle until the end to achieve their goals.
Andrea Levy has achieve to show all these values in a more than satisfactory way: four voices that converge, and four lives’ characters that converge in the same objective: to live. References Anderson, B. Imagined Communities, (1983) Cinkova, L. West Indian Experience in Britain in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century: Bittersweet Homecoming, (2010) Gilroy, P. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? Abingdon: 2004 Mahadevan, U. England of Andrea Levy’s Small Island: Dreams and Realities, (2010)