Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about Small Island
are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who
would like to learn more about the author and this novel. We hope that this
guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of
perspectives from which you might approach Small Island.
About This Book
Winner of the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction
Set largely in England during and soon after WWII, Andrea Levy's
award-winning debut novel Small Island is about four different people at
a time of profound social upheaval: Queenie, the spoiled blonde daughter of a
British butcher; her husband Bernard, the repressed working-class soldier
committed to his ideals; Gilbert, Queenie's Jamaican tenant and Royal Air Force
veteran struggling to belong in the Mother Country he fought for; and Gilbert's
lovely and demanding Jamaican wife Hortense, who married not for love but for a
better life that she failed to find. As each of these character's lives
intersect in surprising and disruptive ways, all are forced to confront, and
ultimately adapt, to the changing world around them.
In the "Prologue," how does Levy show that perception of race is often
a result of misperception? Which other scenes in the novel reveal similar
racial misperceptions? What are they and how do they lead to conflict?
Small Island is alternately narrated by four charactersQueenie,
Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernard. How does this narrative style contribute to
the drama of the story? Did you find certain narrators more compelling? If you
were to choose one narrator to tell the story, which would you chose? Why?
Do you think it is significant that the novel begins with Queenie and
ends with Hortense? Why?
In chapter 6, Hortense tells Gilbert that "Celia's mother is not well"
(p 78). What do you think are Hortense's motives for saying this? Do you think
she is aware of her motives? Why? If you were Celia, would you respond
differently or the same as she did? Explain.
It could be said that all the charactersQueenie, Hortense, Gilbert,
and Bernardare "flawed." Explain. Considering the historical context of the
story, are certain characters' flaws more forgivable? Why? How does each of
character evolve throughout the story? Which characters evolve most? Explain.
Consider the sexuality of each of the main characters. Which of the
four characters' sexuality undergoes the biggest transformation? Which the
least? Compare Queenie's relationship with Michael and Bernard's relationship
with George "Maxi" Maximillion. How are they different? In what ways are they
How have social attitudes toward race changed since 1948? In what ways
might they be the same? Compare Levy's depiction of racial attitudes in
England versus the United States. Do they seem different? If so, how?
On page 145, Gilbert observes "Everyone fighting a war hates. All must
conjure a list of demons. The enemy." What do you think he means? How might
this statement apply to our own era?
Consider Elwood's plea to his cousin Gilbert about joining the British
army: "Man, this is a white man's war. Why you wanna lose your life for a
white man? For Jamaica, yes. To have your own country, yes. That is worth a
fight. . . I join you then, man. But you think winning this war is going to
change anything for me and you" (p 106). Do you agree with Elwood? Why? Do you
think Gilbert made the right choice? Why? What would you have done if you were
in his situation? Explain.
Gilbert is a black man whose father is Jewish. Do you see any
parallels between racial prejudice and anti-Semitism in the world during WWII
and today? Explain. Have you or anyone you know been forced to choose between
two socially determined identities, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, or
Do you agree with Queenie's decision concerning her child? Why? If you
were in the same situation, what would you have done in 1948? Today? Explain.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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