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A Small Place

Jamaica Kincaid

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Important Quotations Explained

Themes

The Ugliness of Tourism

For Kincaid, tourists are morally ugly, though in her description of fat, “pastrylike-fleshed” people on the beach, she shows that physical ugliness is part of tourism as well. The moral ugliness of tourism is inherent in the way tourists make use of other, usually much poorer, people for their pleasure. Kincaid is not referring to direct exploitation of others (though she does mention one government minister who runs a brothel); rather, she refers to a more spiritual form of exploitation. According to Kincaid, a tourist travels to escape the boredom of ordinary life—they want to see new things and people in a lovely setting. Kincaid points out that the loveliness of the places that tend to attract tourists is often a source of difficulty for those who live there. For example, the sunny, clear sky of Antigua, which indicates a lack of rainfall, makes fresh water a scarce and precious commodity. For tourists, however, the beauty is all that matters—the drought is someone else’s problem.

Others’ problems can even add to the attraction of a place for tourists. Kincaid notes that tourists tend to romanticize poverty. The locals’ humble homes and clothing seem picturesque, and even open latrines can seem pleasingly “close to nature,” unlike the modern plumbing at home. Kincaid believes that this attitude is the essence of tourism. The lives of others, no matter how poor and sad, are part of the scenery tourists have come to enjoy, a perspective that negatively affects both tourists and locals. The exotic and often absurd misunderstanding that tourists have of a strange culture ultimately prevents them from really knowing the place they have come to see.

Admiration vs. Resentment of the Colonizer

Kincaid observes the quality of education on Antigua, as well as the minds of its inhabitants, and remains deeply ambivalent about both. She herself is the product of a colonial education, and she believes that Antiguan young people today are not as well-educated as they were in her day. Kincaid was raised on the classics of English literature, and she thinks today’s young Antiguans are poorly spoken, ignorant, and devoted to American pop culture. However, one of the things Kincaid despises most about the old Antigua was its cultural subservience to England. If young Antiguans today are obsessed with American trash, in the old days they were obsessed with British trash. One of the insidious effects of Antiguans being schooled in the British system is that all of their models of excellence in literature and history are British. In other words, Antiguans have been taught to admire the very people who once enslaved them. Kincaid is horrified by the genuine excitement the Antiguans have regarding royal visits to the island: the living embodiment of British imperialism is joyously greeted by the former victims of that imperialism.

Antiguans’ minds have been shaped from the bottom up by the experience of being enslaved and, later, colonized. This intimate shaping determines the contours of daily life and even private thoughts. For example, the young Kincaid’s greatest pleasure is in reading, but everything she reads is tainted by bitterness, since she is learning the dominant culture from the position of a dominated people. English is her first language, and Kincaid complains that even her critique of colonialism must be expressed in the words she learned from the colonialists themselves. Kincaid doesn’t feel at home in either world. She will never be truly English because of race and history, yet her intimacy with English culture expands her horizons far beyond the small boundaries of Antigua. Thanks to slavery and to being ruled from afar for so long, the Antiguans have become accustomed to being passive objects of history, rather than active makers of it. The experiences of the colonized are therefore always secondary in some sense; it is the people from the “large places” who determine events, control history, and even control language.

The Prevalence of Corruption

For Kincaid, corruption is related to colonization in that it is a continuation of the oppression of colonialism—except that corruption turns the once-colonized people against themselves. Kincaid insists that corruption pervades every aspect of public life in Antigua, that everyone knows about it, and that no one seems to know what to do about it. Government ministers run brothels, steal public funds, and broker shady deals, but there is a conspicuous lack of outrage on the part of the public. Kincaid attributes this lack of anger to the Antiguans’ general passivity, but she also sees their attitude as a logical reaction to the “lessons” of Antiguan history. The British claimed to be bringing civilization to the colonized territories while actually exploiting them and taking from them as much as they could. Naturally, when the Antiguans themselves came to power, they followed the example they had been given: under the motto “A People to Mold, A Nation to Build,” their ministers claim to be working for the greater good while lining their own pockets.

Motifs

Direct Address to the Reader

Kincaid speaks directly to the reader throughout A Small Place, even accusing the reader of taking part in the moral ugliness of tourism. Kincaid begins by describing what the reader might see and think as a visitor to Antigua, and she refers to what “you” are probably thinking as “you” read. This direct address has two effects. First, it emphasizes that, from the Antiguans’ point of view, the reader is just as much a part of a generalized group as they are, and that he or she will not be seen as an individual but as a stereotype. Second, it forces the reader to consider the ways in which he or she does, in fact, fit Kincaid’s stereotype of a tourist. Anyone who has traveled to the tropics in search of a relaxing “getaway” is likely to find reading A Small Place uncomfortable due to Kincaid’s accusing, sarcastic tone. By addressing the reader this way, Kincaid hopes to intensify her angry denunciation of the state of things in Antigua by pointing her finger directly at the reader and anticipating the reader’s criticism. For Kincaid, any alienation that the reader feels is part of the plan.

“Unreal” Beauty

Throughout A Small Place, especially in the final section, Kincaid pauses to illustrate Antigua’s natural beauty. She describes the intense colors, the unrelenting sunlight, and the sea. She frequently uses the word “unreal” to describe the scenery, as though everything looks too perfect to be believable. This idea of unreality is part of what Kincaid sees as the effect of the island’s beauty on those who live or travel there. For tourists, everything, including the Antiguans themselves, is a kind of movie backdrop, a stage set up for their own enjoyment. The history and the sufferings of others are incidental, forgettable. For the Antiguans, the unchanging quality of the beauty suggests that their own lives are peripheral to a larger plan. When nothing changes, there is no sense of history or hope of development to motivate people. For Kincaid, the landscape is a determining factor in life on the island, but something morally neutral—the Antiguans’ daily blessing and their historical curse.

Symbols

The Library’s Sign

The sign on the old colonial library in Antigua’s capital reads, “THIS BUILDING WAS DAMAGED IN THE EARTHQUAKE OF 1974. REPAIRS ARE PENDING.” As Kincaid points out, both the sign and the damage to which it refers date back to the colonial period in Antigua. When Kincaid wrote A Small Place, the repairs had been “pending” for more than ten years. Clearly, says Kincaid, people who can wait for something that has been pending for so long must have an unusual sense of time. The library stands on both a literal and a metaphorical fault line: just as the earthquake shook the ground under the building, so did the shift from colonial- to self-rule cause a seismic disruption in the culture that the building was meant to serve. For Kincaid, the status of the library is emblematic of the status of the island as a whole: damaged remnants of a colonial structure remain, but the Antiguans are unable either to repair it or to move on to a new structure. The sign on the library becomes a sign of the stasis in which the Antiguans are trapped and of the inescapability of the colonial past.

Japanese Cars

The Japanese cars, ubiquitous on the island, are an example of the kind of detail a tourist might observe without truly understanding its significance. A tourist might assume that the Antiguans simply prefer Japanese cars, even though they seem oddly out of place amid the general poverty. Kincaid says that only a local would see the significance: the car dealerships are partly owned by government officials who have made sure that low-cost car loans are available to everyone. In other words, the popularity of Japanese cars on the island is part of a moneymaking scheme that has nothing to do with either the common good or the preferences of individual consumers. The unleaded gasoline required to run the cars properly is not even available, though the drivers seem unaware of this. For Kincaid, the Japanese cars throughout Antigua are a potent symbol both of the pervasive corruption endemic in even the most mundane exchanges on the island, and of the way in which the true significance of the details of daily life are invisible to the tourist’s oblivious eye.

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