English Literature
Small Island

Small Island

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A Tale of Immigrant Struggles in Post-WWII Britain: A Look into Andrea Levy's Small Island

Small Island, published in 2004, is a touching novel by Black British author Andrea Levy, whose Jamaican heritage adds a personal touch to the story. The book tells the tale of four main characters - Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, and Queenie and Bernard Bligh - as they face the challenges of being immigrants in post-World War II Britain. Through her expert storytelling, Levy delves into sensitive issues such as racial discrimination and violence, while also highlighting moments of hope and connection within the narrative.


The novel is divided into two timelines - "Before" and 1948 - with the narration alternating between the four protagonists. Each chapter is interspersed with present-day interjections that provide insight into the characters' backgrounds and motivations.

Queenie's Prologue

The story opens with a prologue from Queenie's perspective, recalling a childhood memory of meeting a black man at the British Empire Exhibition. Despite her father's disapproval, Queenie defiantly shakes the man's hand, unaware of the implications. Her father justifies her actions by calling the man a "civilized prince."

Hortense's Narrative

The first chapter introduces Hortense Joseph, who arrives in England in 1948 and is welcomed by Queenie at her doorstep. However, her husband Gilbert's choice of a shabby room for their new home disappoints her, leading her to question their move: "You bring me all the way just for this?" The narrative then delves into Hortense's backstory, revealing her privileged upbringing in Jamaica. Raised by her father's cousins, Mr. Philip and Miss Ma, she develops a crush on her childhood friend Michael Roberts. However, her dreams are shattered when he moves to England and is presumed dead.

Gilbert's Narrative

The perspective then shifts to Gilbert, who joins the RAF and faces racism and discrimination in Virginia, USA. Upon his return to England, he is assigned a menial job in Yorkshire where he continues to encounter discrimination. Gilbert's path crosses with Queenie's when he helps her bring her mentally ill father-in-law back home, leading to a friendship between the two that is tested by a tragic event during a trip to the movies.


The novel returns to present-day as we see Hortense struggling to sleep due to the mice in their run-down room. The narrative then follows Gilbert's difficult return to Jamaica, where he realizes his opportunities are limited. His cousin's suggestion to invest in bees proves to be a failure, leaving Gilbert worse off than before. The story then returns to present-day, where Hortense endures Queenie's naive conversation while trying to keep warm in their cold room.

Queenie's Narrative

Finally, we learn more about Queenie's past, growing up as a butcher's daughter on a farm in Northern England. After moving to London and staying with her Aunt Dorothy, she finds herself on a new path that leads her to Gilbert and the other characters we've encountered.

In conclusion, Andrea Levy's Small Island is a poignant novel that sheds light on the struggles and triumphs of immigrants in post-WWII Britain. Through the lives of four compelling characters, Levy tackles the pervasive issues of racial discrimination and violence, while also showcasing the resilience and hope found in small moments of connection.

Entering the present time, Queenie and Hortense embark on a shopping trip, only to find Bernard waiting for them upon their return. Bernard takes the reins and begins to share his own account of events. As a soldier stationed in India, he harbors animosity and bigotry towards the people and the place. Despite being older than his peers, Bernard is clumsy and frightened, making it challenging for him to make friends. However, he forms a bond with a fellow soldier named Maxi. When Maxi calls for a meeting to organize a strike, Bernard's cowardice prevents him from participating. Tragically, a fire breaks out in the barracks and many soldiers, including Maxi, lose their lives. Bernard is sentenced to jail for abandoning his post to try and extinguish the flames. After his release, he indulges in a one-night stand with a prostitute, only to live in shame and isolation in Brighton for two years, too ashamed to face Queenie.As the story comes to a close, the final chapters transport us back to 1948 where tensions between Queenie and Bernard reach an all-time high. Bernard disapproves of Queenie renting out a room to Black lodgers and suggests they move to the suburbs. On another occasion, Hortense's dreams of becoming a teacher are shattered when she is rejected due to her Jamaican qualifications and the color of her skin.In a twist of fate, Queenie goes into labor unexpectedly and Hortense assists her in giving birth to an illegitimate, mixed-race baby. Believing that Gilbert is the father, Bernard loses his temper and punches him. But Queenie unveils the truth – Michael, who was thought to have died in the war, actually survived and they spent three days together before he left for Toronto. While Queenie initially had doubts about having the baby, she grows to love and accept him.Meanwhile, another tenant named Winston offers to help Gilbert and Hortense renovate a house that he has purchased. As time passes, Bernard warms up to the baby, but Queenie knows that he could never be a good father to a Black child. In a selfless act, she pleads with Hortense and Gilbert to raise the baby as their own. They agree and find a photo of Queenie and a sum of money sewn into the baby's jumper.Now, let's delve deeper into the main characters of this novel.Hortense is a proud Jamaican woman with an inflated sense of superiority. Despite facing discrimination, she initially maintains her belief in her own self-worth. However, as she experiences mistreatment due to her skin color, her character develops. She becomes kinder towards those she once deemed beneath her, showing compassion to a shabbily dressed Jamaican man who engages her in small talk – a behavior that would have been uncharacteristic of her earlier in the story.Throughout the novel, Hortense's aspirations of becoming a teacher in England are dashed by racism. Her overinflated self-perception stems from her father's status and her light complexion. She muses, "With such a countenance, there was a chance of a luxurious life for me. What, after all, could Alberta offer? Bare black feet skipping over stones. If I was entrusted to my father's cousins for upbringing, I could learn to read, write, and master all my times tables. And more. I could become a refined lady worthy of my father, wherever he may be." However, as she faces setbacks and learns to see beyond her own biases, her character evolves and matures.Gilbert was a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II before becoming a postal driver. Like Hortense, he also felt stifled in Jamaica and longed to move to England to pursue his dreams. Unfortunately, like Hortense, Gilbert encountered discrimination due to the color of his skin, derailing his ambitions. Despite this, Gilbert possessed a resilient character and frequently stood up to those who mistreated him, always preserving his dignity. In the end, he even confronts Bernard, saying, "We both just fought a war for a better world, yet you still view me as insignificant. Can we not collaborate instead of fighting against each other?" (Chapter Fifty-nine).On the other hand, Queenie, a well-meaning white woman, held ignorant and prejudiced views. For example, she once remarked that a photo of Michael Roberts' father made him look like a "chimp in clothes." She also had a fascination with Black men, starting in childhood when she met an African man at an exhibition. Later, she also engaged in an affair with Michael Roberts.

Exploring Themes and Literary Devices in "Small Island" by Andrea Levy

Throughout the novel "Small Island," Queenie, the main protagonist, is portrayed as a strong-willed individual with a deep sense of injustice. This is evident from her decision to become a vegetarian at a young age and her empathy towards Caribbean immigrants' struggles. However, in her marriage to Bernard, Queenie feels confined and suppressed, especially in terms of her sexuality. This leads her to engage in an affair with Michael, which becomes an awakening for her, causing her to question her identity. As she reflects, "It wasn't me. This woman could light up London if it weren't for the blackout. Mrs. Queenie Bligh would never have done such a thing, but this woman...she's different." (Chapter Twenty-nine).

Before the war, Bernard worked as a bank clerk, and during the war, he served in the RAF. Despite his job and experience, he is a highly unlikable character due to his blatant ignorance and racism. He also tries to control and suppress Queenie, showcasing his cowardly nature. However, there are glimpses of complexity in Bernard's character, such as when he expresses the wish to have died instead of his friend during the war. Nevertheless, throughout the novel, Bernard remains ignorant, as shown by his statement to Gilbert, "I'm sorry, but I can't understand a word you're saying." (Chapter Fifty-nine).

Themes of Multiple Voices and Non-linear Narratives in "Small Island"

"Small Island" explores various themes, including the use of multiple narrative voices to provide intimate insights into the main characters' stories. Each character has a unique narrative style, reflecting their personalities. For example, Bernard's narration is stilted and self-conscious, highlighting his cowardice and self-awareness, as evident in this passage: "I never wanted to be in India, but it put a spring in the step of this middle-aged man. Proud to be an "erk" - mechanic (engines)." (Chapter Thirty-six).

The novel also utilizes a non-linear narrative, with most of the story set in the past. This emphasizes the importance of understanding the past to comprehend the present and individuals' actions and behaviors.

Irony and Comedy as Literary Devices in "Small Island"

Despite its serious and tragic moments, "Small Island" also contains instances of levity, such as the death of Arthur Bligh and the struggles of Hortense and Gilbert. Author Andrea Levy uses comic devices like irony and misunderstandings to ridicule prejudice and highlight the flaws in prejudiced beliefs, such as racism and classism.

In the novel, irony and comedy are used to draw attention to the need to overcome ignorance and pride. For instance, the usherette mistakenly directs Gilbert, a Black man, to sit at the back of the theater with other Black attendees, exposing and ridiculing her ignorance in a comical manner. Another example is the clashes between Queenie and Hortense, two characters with contrasting flaws, due to their haughtiness and condescending behavior. Unbeknownst to them, they both love the same man, leading to dramatic irony. Both of these storylines underline the importance of overcoming flaws and striving for understanding.

Exploring Themes of Home, Belonging, and Alienation in "Small Island"

The novel also delves into themes of home, belonging, and alienation through the experiences of Windrush immigrants. Interestingly, it is Hortense who holds the financial power in her relationship with Gilbert, as she pays for their trip to England. This dynamic also plays out in their marriage, where Gilbert attempts to exert control over their domestic life, trying to compensate for his lack of control over the racism he faces. For example, when Hortense cooks a bad meal, he lashes out at her in frustration, highlighting how his inability to control external forces leads to controlling behavior in his personal life.

During World War II, women entered the workforce and enjoyed newfound freedoms. However, not everyone welcomed this change, as seen when Bernard, Queenie's husband, expects her to be an obedient wife upon his return. This conflicts with the aspirations of many Windrush immigrants who came to the UK seeking opportunities in the "Mother Country" but were met with crushed ambitions. In the novel, characters like Hortense, Gilbert, Michael, and Elwood are all driven by their ambitions. Even Gilbert's cousin Elwood, who initially appears as a slacker, reveals his ambitions when he confesses to wanting to study law.

For Hortense, dressing, speaking, and acting "properly" are her ways of controlling her identity and protecting herself from the judgement of others. Throughout "Small Island," author Andrea Levy skillfully weaves together various themes and literary devices to portray the complexities of human relationships and the impacts of societal issues such as racism and classism.

Small Island: A Tale of Resilience and Human Connections

Small Island, written by acclaimed author Andrea Levy, is a poignant novel that illuminates the struggles and triumphs of four main characters – Queenie, Gilbert, Hortense, and Bernard – as they navigate life as immigrants in postwar England. Through their intertwined stories and unexpected connections, Levy paints a vivid picture of the challenges and resilience of the Windrush generation.

The novel centers on Hortense and Gilbert, who leave their home in Jamaica in 1948 to start a new life in England. As they face discrimination and struggle to adjust to their new environment, their pasts and relationships with others add depth to their experiences. For instance, Queenie, their kind-hearted landlady, reveals her own past and a forbidden affair with a black RAF soldier, Michael Roberts. Little do they know, Michael is actually Hortense's step-brother.

As their lives become increasingly intertwined, Queenie's husband Bernard returns from war, changing the course of their lives. After Queenie gives birth to a mixed-race child, she turns to Hortense and Gilbert for help, revealing the novel's overarching theme of finding support and forming connections, no matter how small, in a hostile world.

Levy's skilled use of multiple perspectives and non-linear storytelling allows readers to understand the characters' motivations and experiences from different angles. She also infuses the story with humor, creating a light-hearted tone amidst the characters' struggles.

In essence, Small Island is a powerful exploration of the immigrant experience during the Windrush era. It delves into complex themes of race, discrimination, and the search for identity and belonging, while also showcasing the inner strength and survival of its characters. Levy's remarkable storytelling makes Small Island a must-read for all.

The Interconnected Lives in Small Island: A Powerful Depiction of Identity and Immigration

The characters in Andrea Levy's acclaimed novel, Small Island, are brought together by fate and circumstance, showcasing the interconnectedness of their lives and histories. Through their interactions, Levy masterfully reveals the profound impact of immigration and the fusion of diverse cultures in shaping contemporary Britain.

Small Island is a poignant and thought-provoking work that delves deep into complex themes such as identity, discrimination, and relationships. With her authentic writing and compelling storytelling, Levy presents an insightful exploration of the Caribbean immigrant experience in post-World War II Britain.

So the next time you find yourself wondering about the author of Small Island, remember to credit the immensely talented Andrea Levy. Through her unflinching portrayal of the voices and struggles of Caribbean immigrants in her novels, Levy has left a lasting impact on literature and given a voice to the often overlooked perspectives of immigrant communities.

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