The aftermath of war in Bernard and Queenie’s conduct
The war had been an enormous bomb blast. Everything thrown up, tumbling, turning and scattering high in the air. Now it was over; the whole lot was coming back down to land. But it was all settling in different places.
– Andrea Levy, Small Island (London: Tinder Press, 2006) (page 497)
Small Island was written by Andrea Levy and published in 2004, with its plot set in 1948, when England is still very much in the process of recovering from the effects of the Second World War and being reconstructed. Events like the inauguration of the new health system (NHS) and the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship from Jamaica contributed to define the beginning of the post-war condition that changed British society. It is possible to link these events and many other transformations in England to the effects of war. Considering the aftermath of war and its period of crisis, I limit my analysis on the narrative structure and on Queenie and Bernard’s actions during this critical period.
The narrative contains a particular structure that reflects the matter of war. Instead of being constructed in a chronological order, the plot is separated in two ways. First, the narrative is divided in the voice of the four characters. Second, the plot is divided, after a short prologue, by the time. The plot moves back and forth in a flashback style, in which the nine main units of the novel are labelled by “1948” or “Before”, reaching back to 1924. In addition to this shift of time and perspective of the four characters, the reader is also taken to different setting places, across national borders and cultural instants, involving the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 at Wembley; London before and after the outbreak of World War II; Jamaica, England and United States through the Jamaican airmen; and Calcutta after Victory over Japan.
By exposing the reader to this analeptic narrative, Levy passes the sense of chaos provoked by war in the lives of the characters. The lack of specification of the previous time, named simply “Before”, ends by turning the past rather intangible and causes the opposite effect in the present of the plot. By emphasising this period, named “1948”, the narrative has its focus on the post-war time and consequences. The war time ends by becoming the only landmark of the characters, which somehow are either attached to the past or projecting their future (Hortense and Gilbert) and try to escape from the chaotic present. An example of this connection to the past is Bernard, whose Queenie tries to change the house when she moves in saying “[i]t could be a proper home again […][b]ut most things she suggested were met with Bernard’s shaking head” (217), so he refuses the alterations as his house is passed from generation to generation. Bernard’s presence in the story is limited to Queenie’s description of him in her narrative during the first half of the book, as if the narration tried to reproduce his taciturnity. Before his narration, all the other three characters narrate the plot in a way that moves constantly back and forward in time, in a random sequence. Nevertheless, the chapters concerning Bernard are grouped together in a sequence of ten chapters, which are all included in the time zone “Before”. Only the last three are spread like the others in the end of the novel in the “present” part of the plot, in 1948. This structure in the narrative may represent the idea that Bernard, who is traditional and resist changes, is stuck in the past. However, different from Queenie, war imposes new events to Bernard without asking his permission.
Bernard’s stable and even apathetic personality is disturbed by the events of war. Apart from Queenie, his father Arthur and the superficial talks with the neighbours, Bernard does not seem to have other relations. His statement saying that “[he]’d not wanted a war […], never wanted to be out in India. But ([he] admit[s]) it put a rod in the back and a spring in the step of this middle-aged bank clerk who’d thought his life was set” (289) epitomises his structured personality. The opening sentence of the second chapter that introduces his narrative is organised with rhymes and rhythm. The war took Bernard out from England and forced new elements in his life, making him live different experiences, he “even started whistling (nothing fancy) now [that he] was part of a team” and was proud of it. (ibid.)
Supporting this idea of Bernard’s social life being broadened by the happenings of war, during his time in India he gets very close to Maxi. Friendship and affection seem to be a novelty to Bernard, and their friendship is rather valued by him. So esteemed by him that in his description some erotic tension appears to occur between the two in the episode in the dark forest, as they heard a supposed teammate calling for help and realised it was a trap made by the Japanese men. Hidden from them, Maxi and Bernard move closer to share the only blanket they had:
Two vigilant heads swivelling, our bodies wrapped as one, sticking together where bare flesh pressed. […] Our guns were quickly erect, poking through the gap in the cloth, pointing different ways. […] His warm breath on my cheek, smelling of tobacco. Wafts of body odour were puffing from the blanket. Rough fibres scratching our cheeks. […] The muscles of Maxi arm pumped against me (tense again) His knee nervously rubbing mine. (294-5)
In the passage, their physical proximity is evident. It is followed by their plans of becoming partners in a rabbit farm in the countryside in England. Finally, Maxi dies in a supposed arson to the erks’ hut. In the end of the war in India, Bernard thinks he is infected by syphilis because of his intercourse with a prostitute there and, ashamed, he avoids coming back to Queenie. Perhaps as a way to cling to Maxi’s existence, he chose to go to Brighton, his friend’s city, and watches his children and wife, who “soon got used to seeing [him] sitting in the graveyard [and] would nod to him.” (351)
If the lines open space for considerations on Bernard’s sexuality and the flexibility of it, this is surprising for the reader who has been introduced to a very intransigent and bigoted Englishman. Another episode, some pages before the one with Maxi, seems to reinforce the idea of the discovery of this aspect of Bernard’s. In this passage, Bernard falls in a trench, crowded with men as Japanese planes fly over them. When the planes disappeared and they started to go out of the trench, “[he] lost [his] balance and slid back down. It was when [he] noticed an unmistakable bulge in the front of [his] shorts. [He] had an erection” (285), which is something at least curious in such a situation.
We are also shown the permanent consequences of war through Arthur, Bernard’s father, who returned from the First World War with shell shock — a disorder that has turned him mute. Bernard appears to internalise many of his father’s characteristics and suffer from the consequences of having lost the interaction with his “pa” (father), who is thus infantilised – he does not speak and is tended by his own son and wife. When Arthur came back from the First World War “he was never [his] pa again. […] He used to carry [Bernard] on his shoulders before” (331), to teach him how to play, etc. Arthur’s shellshock affects Bernard’s personality, as he seems to have absorbed this trait of Arthur. Queenie often complains about the parsimony of words of her husband, which can also be read in the plot as the representation of the British cold manner, compared to the Jamaican people.
Queenie learnt in school that an apostrophe existed to show something was missing and “that was how [she]’d always seen Bernard’s father, Arthur: a human apostrophe”, as he “never spoke. He shook his head, nodded, he grunted, he sighed, he even tutted. But no words came through his lips” (238). Bernard’s lack of reaction, silence, when Queenie reveals to him that she was pregnant and he was not the father illustrates the relation between Arthur, the mute father, and his son. Despite of the intense events, “[t]here are some words once spoken split the world in two. Before you say them and after” (412), and Bernard opts for not changing their couple situation:
He listened to me right through. Never saying a word. Never interrupting or wanting a clarification. Never tutted, shook his head. […] And for the first time I was thankful that Bernard Bligh could be relied upon to have absolutely nothing to say. (ibid.)
The war also brings to Queenie’s life situations in which she is able to develop her self-knowledge and put in practise her vivacity. Marrying Bernard enables her to run away from the countryside’s tediousness and move to his house in London. However, she may have found out that she had just moved from one sort of boredom to another. At the beginning of the war, the “raid was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in this house, [t]ingling with life… [she]was looking forward to this war” (220), which will shake her life. Moreover, due to her unbending husband’s absence, Queenie has good components for living huge transformations, first opening the house for tenants and then finally meeting Michael as one of them.
The reader can consider Queenie the one who unites the other three characters that narrate the story. She serves as a conflict softener between her husband and the other couple formed by Gilbert and Hortense, as well as an important person for their settling in England. Queenie can be considered the most enlightened character in Small Island, as she is one of the few British people depicted as accepting racial differences. She has an inquisitive mind (in the prologue regarding her teacher), is able to leave her family and the countryside (even though due to an unemotional marriage), she goes to work in the rest centre aiding casualties of war and even helps some of them giving them her furniture and a place to stay.
After Bernard’s departure to India, Queenie needed to get by on her own and conceded some rooms of the house to be rented. Michael was one of the people who stayed briefly at the place during his time passing through London. He is described earlier in the plot as being Hortense’s infatuation since her childhood. He got involved with Mrs Ryder, the married American teacher in the school in Jamaica, and Hortense saw both kissing, which broke her heart. The experienced Michael arrives in England and soon catches Queenie’s attention, having the features that Bernard lacks. Michael is adventurous, talks, tells her stories and makes her feel special, or at least desired, leading to their erotic encounter:
It wasn’t me. Mrs Queenie Bligh, she wasn’t even there. This woman was a beauty—he couldn’t get enough of her. He liked the downy softness of the blonde hairs on her legs. Her nipples were the pinkest he’d ever seen. Her throat—he just had to kiss her throat. This woman was as sexy as any starlet on a silver screen. (248)
Queenie and Bernard seem to have attitudes that were triggered by the war, revealing some aspects of their respective inherent traits, giving them opportunities to experience different sides of their personalities. Since Bernard does not return home when the war ended, Queenie lives life on her own terms. Free of the prejudices that people like Gilbert and Hortense face very often, Queenie is able to cultivate true friendships and stay rather immune from the judgments of her neighbours. Sometimes she appears to be tinged with the presumptions of those around her, but it is mostly because of her lack of knowledge and hesitation rather than a moulded prejudice. For example, she asks Hortense “[d]o you have pictures… films… where you come from?” (190), assuming the idea that they come from a non-civilised place, or maybe this is a sign that she just ignores the existence of the place, as other characters in the plot. She also ends by giving her baby to Gilbert and Hortense to bring up as theirs, which may be seen as a heartless act by some, even to Bernard.
Bernard is exposed to different “sort of people”, forced by war to leave his house and country for some years. Even if this is not enough to deeply change him, it is already positive, considering his level of intolerance. By suggesting bringing up the baby as theirs, Bernard ends being open to accepting the son of another man; and, more impressive, a black baby, which gives a positive feeling to the end Levy constructs, implying that even the most inflexible and coldest people are able transcend their stiffed views. Queenie and Bernard are examples of how the author depicts her characters in a human, multifaceted manner, not just defined as good or bad. This rich approach turns Small Island, into a novel that makes concepts such truth, identity and knowledge not simplistic. Through the critical events of war, the novel merges and problematizes subjects like the fictional and the historical, the past and the current, familiar and foreigner, good and evil, right and wrong.
Andrea Levy. Small Island. London: Headline, 2004
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