Language & Key Quotes

Accents and Dialects

For a novel that splits its focus between characters from Jamaica and England, as well as India for some time, there are a range of languages spoken in conversations. English is the predominant language spoken in the novel, yet there are great variations in how it is spoken, with the different accents and dialects seeping into the dialogue between characters. For example, Queenie speaks in a white working-class vernacular, whilst Bernard speaks with a polished, sophisticated British accent. Hortense attempts to speak like an upper-class British person, though is held back from success due to her Jamaican accent. Gilbert also speaks with a Jamaican accent, infused with words more specific to the West Indian dialect.

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Many of the Jamaican characters refer to Great Britain as the ‘Motherland’, as Jamaica was a colony under British rule within the British Empire. The Motherland is a symbol of power and opportunity, but also of oppression and control. Queenie and Bernard’s house in London is a symbol of refuge for the Jamaican soldiers who have travelled to Britain to fight in the war. Contrastingly, it then becomes a site of conflict and racial tension when Bernard returns from the war effort. Queenie’s baby, being Michael’s son is a symbol of hope but also fear for what the future holds in a society that becomes increasingly culturally diverse.

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Sensory Language

Being set during World War II, there are several moments in Small Island where Andrea Levy relies upon sensory language, or language that appeals to the readers’ senses, to explicitly describe events in the novel. For example, Queenie’s experience of the Blitz, with bombs dropping on the road where she lives with Bernard and Arthur, as well as at the train station. Whilst Bernard is in India, Levy describes in detail the sights and sounds that the character encounters in order to help the reader establish a more vivid picture of Bernard’s experience there, and perhaps help justify his consequent actions and decisions.

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Key Quotes

Key Quote 1

Queenie and Bernard’s neighbour, Mr Todd, displays extreme racial prejudice when he declares that he wants ‘no Irish, no coloureds, no dogs’ living down his street. The repetition of ‘no’ emphasises his severe dislike for what he finds unacceptable, and the use of a list of three demonstrates Mr Todd’s hatred as wide-ranging. The stubbornness reflected in his words represents the individuals who struggle to accept racial diversity. Also, by referring to dogs in his hateful declarations, he reduces all the people he disapproves of in the same category of animals, insulting them by dismissing their existence as fellow humans.

Key Quote 2

Gilbert’s cousin, Elwood, attempts to persuade Gilbert to remain in Jamaica rather than move to Britain, asking ‘Why you wan’ the whole world when ya have a likkle piece a hope here?’ The rhetorical question suggests that Elwood cannot comprehend Gilbert’s desire to leave their home country, and sees staying in Jamaica as the only conceivable option for anyone born there. The alliteration of ‘w’ implies a hint of desperation in Elwood’s attempts to make Gilbert stay, whilst the Jamaican dialect that pervades the entire question shows how ingrained Elwood’s Jamaican identity is.

Key Quote 3

Gilbert provides a description of the war from his own perspective, stating ‘This was war. There was hardship I was prepared for - bullet, bomb and casual death.’ The short sentence is powerful with its abrupt, straightforward declaration of the situation Gilbert finds himself in. The list of three reveals Gilbert’s clear and detailed understanding of what he has signed up to experience, as well as emphasising the level of danger the war will threaten. The alliteration of ‘b’ ‘in ‘bullet’ and ‘bomb’ echoes the harshness both weapons of destruction can inflict on a human, heightening the fear the reader has for Gilbert as he joins the RAF.

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List some examples of symbols that occur in Small Island.
Your answer should include: The / Motherland / Queenie’s / House / Baby
How does Levy present Elwood in Small Island (six lines)
Your answer should include: Persuasive / Patriotic / Hopeless / Ambitious / Determined / Doubtful / Cynical