Andrea Levy’s portrayal of characters in Small Island
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Write about the way Andrea Levy portrays characters in Small Island.
The novel ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy surrounds the happenings of four characters in 1948 after World War II, when England was just about recovering from the terror the war had caused and, more specific to the novel, when there was a sudden influx of foreigners immigrating to Britain. Levy takes on the voices of four individual and vastly different characters in the novel and attempts to tell us their stories and their dreams, hopes and also their defeat in trying to attain them. Levy’s talent in changing between the four narrative voices and has told the story has been greatly praised as it has enabled her to produce four vividly imaginable characters that all have their own defined personality. The way in which she portrays these four characters is what I am going to look into in this essay.
The voices given to the characters is very significant as it is from this that we create our perception of them and thus view them in a positive or negative light. The narrative voice that Levy uses for each of the characters is very rich and gives each of the individual characters their own persona. Gilbert, for example, has a distinct Jamaican accent. Levy has created Gilbert as a comical and engaging character just through his narrative voice as we can see very early on in the novel. In Chapter 2, he tells us about why he was not able to collect Hortense from the dock in a very funny and over-exaggerated manner. The way he describes how he thought it would be is vivid and almost comical in comparison to how it turned out for him – ‘Romantic, my mind is conjuring her waving majestic to me, my shoulders, manly silhouetting against the morning sun, poised to receive her comely curves as she runs into my arms. Only they tell me, no’. His hearty way of speaking to the reader makes us think good of Gilbert and like him, in stark contrast to Hortense, who speaks very unlike Gilbert.
Her language is posh and void of any humor, similar to an upper-class English woman. It is the idea that she is speaking unlike any of the other Jamaicans in her village that makes her dislikeable, as we can see that she is trying very hard to be something she is not, as though she is making a very great effort not to be a part of her Jamaican roots, but to be a part of the white roots of her father who she did not ever see. In the first chapter, even Queenie is taken aback by her way of talking which is far too posh for any normal English person. Her way of speaking makes us perceive her as being snobbish and up-in-the clouds; this is brought out very well by her marriage to Gilbert, who is much more down-to-earth. However, Hortense’s language is open to different interpretations – it can also be said that her voice shows the reader that she is a very capable young lady who has not been given a chance to excel with a career due to racism.
Another way by which Levy portrays her characters is through how they deal with the certain experiences they have gone through. Their background story also plays a very important role in particular as it is their past that has molded them into the current character that they are. Hortense’s past is very significant as from a young age we learn that she had arrogance and pride over her ‘warm honey’ skin colour that was unlike her mothers ‘bitter chocolate hue’. As readers, we can understand from this that Hortense was snobbish even as a child and thought of herself as superior to the other people in her village who had looked after her. Another aspect of her past which shows her as a dislikeable character is that she offered money to Gilbert, the man one of her only good friends Celia had loved, on condition that he marry her and take her to England. This highlights Hortense’s selfishness and also her belief that London is the golden city of dreams – something that we, as the readers, know is not true. Her past experiences in Jamaica show us that her head is way too high up in the clouds and that she is much too unrealistic for her own good, making us perceive her in a negative light. Another character who we are made to perceive negatively is Bernard. An interesting way by which Levy creates a negative light on Bernard is through how much of the novel is dedicated to Bernard’s narrative voice. We are not given an insight into Bernard’s past at all – this makes the reader less sympathetic towards us. Furthermore, Bernard’s voice comes in very much after half the novel has finished; at this point of the novel we have already come to have a good insight about the other three characters and we have formed our own perception of them.
The only information we have about Bernard is what we know from Queenie – that he had disappeared during the war and she hadn’t heard from him in two years and assumed him dead. Queenie is a likeable character, and therefore finding out that Bernard is very well alive angers the reader, so already we have a negative perception of him. Furthermore, the many bad things does in India and Burma, such as going to a brothel and having sex with a very young girl, makes us see him as very detestable and immoral man.
The context in which the novel was written also plays a very important role in how the characters are perceived. Today’s society is anti-racist and thus many of the characters will be taken as good or bad based on their views. Queenie, for example, has a neutral outlook onto the people in Britain and does not mind black people, unlike many of the others. She is not afraid of being seen with Gilbert having lunch, which shows us that she is a fearless and moral woman, perceived well by the society of today. Bernard’s racist views, however, would be seen as incorrect and therefore he would be seen as wrong, along with Hortense as well, who thought she was superior due to her lighter skin colour. Thus, it is the attitudes of the character that Levy chooses to show us that also play a role in how they are perceived by us. Another example by which Levy makes our perception change based on a characters attitude is Hortense’s idea that London is the city of gold and dreams; an idea which we all know is false. She believes that by coming to London, she’ll be able to live the life that she imagined her father would have given her had she lived with him. Her unrealistic and unreasonable way of thinking is irritating for the readers, who already know that this is totally untrue, which adds to our perception of dislike for her.
Conclusively, Levy has made use of many different techniques in order to make us think a certain way about a character. Her structure and use of language are very significant aspects as these are the two main ways by which she portrays her four characters, helping her achieve the quality of story telling that has helped her gain the many awards that she has for this novel.