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A Small Place

Jamaica Kincaid

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. [A]nd so you needn’t let that slightly funny feeling you have from time to time about exploitation, oppression, domination develop into full-fledged unease, discomfort; you could ruin your holiday.

Taken from the first section of A Small Place, this passage is an example of Kincaid’s direct address to the reader, as well as her sarcastic tone. The kind of reader Kincaid has in mind is likely to be well-educated enough to have some idea of the colonial history, and present difficulties, of a place like Antigua, but is just as likely to suppress such knowledge for comfort’s sake, in order not to “ruin their holiday.” One of Kincaid’s primary intentions is to make such complacency impossible. An important weapon in her arsenal is the kind of classic rhetorical device she uses here: an anticlimax. In comparison to the grand political and moral issues she references—“exploitation, oppression, domination”—the reader’s concern for an unspoiled tropical vacation is bound to seem petty and rather squalid. The “funny feeling” she wants to gain access to is the reader’s conscience.

2. Do you ever try to understand why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget? There is the Barclay’s Bank. The Barclay brothers are dead. The human beings they traded, the human beings who to them were only commodities, are dead. . . . So do you see the queer thing about people like me? Sometimes we hold your retribution.

In the second section of A Small Place, Kincaid indicts the British colonial system and, by extension, the entire enterprise of European colonialism. She condemns the early capitalist system that traded in humans, turning them into a commodity no different from sugar or rum. The Barclay Brothers illustrate how historical acts of exploitation are never really over, despite our desire to pretend otherwise. After making their fortunes in the slave trade, the Barclays went into banking, and the financial institution they set up continues to operate worldwide. Ironically, Barclay’s Bank is the major banking company on Antigua, issuing loans and managing the meager funds of the descendents of the very slaves who were the source of the Barclay fortune. The Barclays are, in a sense, still profiting from those they exploited long after their deaths, which suggests the unending ramifications of actions that seem safely ensconced in history. Kincaid “cannot forgive and cannot forget,” because there is no way to undo the injustice of slavery, and, in a way, the injustice continues. The Barclays are beyond punishment, and their victims are beyond help. Kincaid can only keep the thought of them alive as a sort of “retribution.”

3. I[I]f you could hear the sound of [the old library’s] quietness . . . , the smell of the sea . . . , the heat of the sun . . . , the beauty of us sitting there like communicants at an altar . . . , the fairy tale of how we met you, your right to do the things you did . . . you would see why my heart would break at the dung heap that now passes for a library in Antigua.

This passage, from the beginning of the third section, is part of Kincaid’s attempt to answer the question of whether Antigua was better off under colonial rule. The library perfectly captures the dilemma, as well as Kincaid’s ambiguous feelings about it. Kincaid’s loving, lyrical description of the library is one of the most tender moments in the book. The old library is like a church in Kincaid’s memory, and the current library above the dry goods store is a mockery of the old, now-damaged building. Kincaid’s nostalgia is undercut by a wary realization that the library served a political function in the old Antigua. To Kincaid, the library was part of the “fairy tale” of Empire—the story of how the British brought culture and civilization to the so-called savage parts of the world. Kincaid emphasizes that the ultimate purpose of the education she received under the colonial system was to teach her that the British were right to do what they did to win their empire and that her own status as a subject of a foreign crown was just. Kincaid’s emotional ambivalence is crucial to her portrayal of the library, which is itself ambivalent: formerly a lovely place and now a liberated “dung heap.”

4. Antigua is a small place. Antigua is a very small place. In Antigua, not only is the event turned into everyday, but the everyday is turned into an event.

Toward the middle of the third section, Kincaid discusses how Antiguans experience the passage of time, and, by extension, how they think of history. Antiguans have a distorted perspective of their lives: small things loom large, and major events are reduced to an “ordinary” occurance. For example, Antiguans think daily about their history as slaves, and they think of emancipation as if it has just occurred. Turning this extraordinary event into an everyday occurrence weakens the uniqueness of the moment and obscures the importance of any subsequent event, such as Antigua’s rampant corruption. At the same time, ordinary events take on an exaggerated importance, such as when two men turn an inconsequential accident into a years-long feud. By repeatedly asserting that Antigua is “a small place,” Kincaid emphasizes the overwhelming physical constraints placed on life by Antigua’s physical environment and positions it as the perfect example of a colonized society. In this sense, Antigua is the ultimate “small place,” and its struggles are like those of all such places as they try to define themselves against the “large” places and forces of the world.

5. It is as if, then, the beauty—the beauty of the sea, the land, the air, the trees, the market, the people, the sounds they make—were a prison, and as if everything and everybody inside it were locked in and everything and everybody that is not inside it were locked out. And what might it do to ordinary people to live in this way every day? What might it do to them to live in such heightened, intense surroundings every day?

In this passage from the final section, Kincaid addresses the mixed blessing of Antigua’s beauty. Once again, she does so by considering the difference between the Antiguan point of view and that of anyone not from the island. The landscape cannot make Antigua wealthy in a material sense—there is no oil, timber, or great fertile prairie to be developed. Instead, the landscape’s beauty is Antigua’s great natural resource, which means it is also one of the great determining factors of Antiguans’ lives. Tourists are drawn to the island because of this beauty, and, for them, the inhabitants are part of the scenery. In this sense, outsiders are “locked out” of understanding what the lives of the insiders are truly like. The insiders are “locked in” in a similar way—they belong to the landscape more than it can ever belong to them. The surroundings are so “heightened” and “intense” that they seem to negate some of the intensity of people’s actual existences. As Kincaid says, the beauty of the island is so perfect and unchanging that change itself seems impossible. When everything is extraordinary, making judgments about what needs to change is difficult, and the fate of becoming simply a passive observer of a beautiful cage seems unavoidable.

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