How do the characters in Andrea Levy's Small Island present the idea of needing to escape the past?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Andrea Levy's novel Small Island is set in England in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. All characters in the story have been greatly affected by the war and demonstrate the need to break free from their troubled, war-torn pasts.

Queenie is one character who needs to escape her war-torn past. Queenie grew up as a child in the country and, as an adult, had to move into the country estate of her father-in-law, Arthur, when her husband Bernard enlisted in the military. However, her father-in-law has shell shock from his service in World War I and is ironically accidentally killed in town by a military police officer during a race riot. After war indirectly kills her father-in-law, Queenie is forced to leave her childhood country past behind and move to what remains of her husband's home in London. After the war ends and her husband still does not return, she is also forced to leave behind the married part of her life as well. She is forced to leave behind her past in which she depended on others for provision, including both her childhood and her married life, and find a way to provide for herself. Hence, as we can see, World War II has forced Queenie to leave behind her past and find a new way to get on with life.

A second character who leaves behind her past is Hortense, from Jamaica. Though Jamaica played its part during World War II, it was not as war-torn as many other locations. Regardless, as a British colony, Jamaica was afflicted with poverty, especially during the Great Depression, and its Africans, brought over by the British during the slave trade, suffered oppression. African women in particular were forbidden to travel off the island. As a result, women like Hortense dreamed of making an escape and even actively pursued husbands like Gilbert who could take them off the island, even if they thought such men were beneath them, just as Hortense felt that Gilbert was less educated than she was and therefore beneath her. Though Hortense found England to be very disappointing when she first arrived, her willingness to leave Jamaica shows that she felt the need to escape her own past.

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