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A Small Place | Quotes


The more meaningful the thing, the more meaningless we make it.

Section 1

Kincaid explains the Antiguan way of making influential, traumatic events into simple realities of everyday life. This rendering of significant events like the 1974 earthquake as "meaningless" keeps Antiguans from understanding their lives in historical context, but it may also help them process repeated trauma and injustice. Kincaid speaks candidly about her fellow Antiguans to a Western reader, who's accustomed to a different sense of which events are "meaningful."


A tourist is an ugly human being.

Section 1

This succinct phrase sums up the transition a traveler goes through when they arrive in a new country, planning to enjoy themselves and observe the native residents. Though anyone can be a tourist, in Kincaid's context the "tourist" is a white, well-off North American or European traveler to a colonized country, such as a Caribbean nation. The ugliness comes from the way tourists, seeking service and entertainment, perpetuate the exploitation and domination of the native population. Tourists may be aware of their own ugliness but choose to avoid any self-examination that may make them uncomfortable.


Every native of every place is a potential tourist.

Section 1

Kincaid describes the universal desire for rest and escape. Every person, regardless of privilege, income, race, or nationality, can become dissatisfied with their lives and long to leave their problems behind. Kincaid explains how white, wealthy travelers to Antigua act on this basic impulse by turning a disadvantaged nation into "a source of pleasure." Though anyone can potentially feel another culture is different and strange, Kincaid points out how the white tourist can be particularly superior and condescending (in thoughts and behaviors) toward native Caribbean residents.


Sometimes we hold your retribution.

Section 2

The English colonizers, in Kincaid's view, haven't been punished enough for their crimes. Those they harmed—slaves and the descendants of slaves—were punished instead. Kincaid says "we" to include colonized people of color, specifically black people. They've taken the punishment or "retribution" the colonizers deserve, and it has led to anger, resentment, and pain.


The language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal's deed.

Section 2

Black Antiguan children were taught to read and write English. In this language associated with England and the British Empire, Kincaid tries to describe the crime of the colonizers. But even in her language she's limited. With this statement she asks the reader to examine how they encounter her text: Why does she write in this language? Where did the language come from? What is its history? What are its limitations? She also implies the horrors and pain her people went through can't be described in the English language.


All we seem to have learned from you is how to corrupt our societies.

Section 2

Kincaid answers white critics of black self-ruling Antigua. She recognizes the flaws and crimes in Antiguan government and other Caribbean countries (she later mentions corrupt leaders in Haiti and Grenada). But she points out those flaws are not because Antiguans or other Caribbean natives are uniquely incapable of governing themselves, despite racist stereotypes critics may perpetuate. Instead Antigua and other Caribbean nations learned corruption, tyranny, theft, and other crimes from the English governments who ruled them.


We, for as long as we have known you, were capital.

Section 2

Kincaid challenges the notion black natives of colonized countries ("people like me") are innately incapable of functioning in a Western capitalist society, or of governing themselves. She points to colonialism's idea of the helpless, ignorant native and says the problem doesn't lie with the natives but with the system creating the power structures. Antiguans, descended from people who were bought and sold, can't embrace a system that runs on buying and selling—or in seeing people as potential profit mills through trade and industry.


People at the Mill Reef Club love the old Antigua. I love the old Antigua.

Section 3

The wealthy patrons of the Mill Reef Club are nostalgic for a romantic idea of colonialism. They want to repair the old library in Antigua rather than build a new one. Kincaid's "old Antigua" is made up of family, culture, and community, before modernization and development. She sees the library as a resource for the residents rather than simply a "splendid old [building] from colonial times."


The government is for sale.

Section 3

Kincaid says everyone in Antigua comes to this realization eventually. Despite the harm capitalism has brought to black Antiguans, the country now runs on capitalism and its value of the dollar. The phrase also indicates the government doesn't run on moral principles or honesty. Instead of being able to choose the best leader, the Antiguan people are at the mercy of whomever has the most money. Foreign investors also have leadership positions in Antigua that they've bought, not earned.


In a small place, people cultivate small events.

Section 3

Using "small" to mean minor or trivial, Kincaid explains how the Antiguan perspective of events differs sharply from the Western perspective. Antiguans turn mundane moments in their lives into important parts of themselves. At the same time, they view historical, world-changing events as every day, as if they'd just happened (such as emancipation and the 1974 earthquake). Each event is considered "domestic" or local—Antiguans can only understand the world through the context of their daily lives in Antigua. They don't see themselves as part of a rapidly changing world. Kincaid explains how this mindset makes it challenging for Antigua to grow and develop as a self-sufficient nation.


The division of Time into the Past, the Present, and the Future does not exist.

Section 3

English colonizers stole the common history, language, and heritage from both black slaves and the original residents of Antigua. Without sources of history to draw on, Antiguans can't imagine their future, learn from their past, or feel in control of their present. As a result Antigua has become "a small place" with a "small" conception of time, only as big as the present moment. Kincaid thinks this perception results in a narrow, limiting worldview.


And after they look at the father and the sons, they say, What next?

Section 3

Antiguans, including Kincaid, are nervous about the direction their new government is taking. The "father and the sons" are powerful prime minister V.C. Bird and his two sons, who both have strong government influence. Antiguans look at other Caribbean countries where a single family has taken over the government, and that has led to poverty, destruction, autocracy, and the loss of freedom. They fear their new independence and self-rule will be taken away.


It is as if, then, the beauty ... were a prison.

Section 4

Two starkly contrasting images—a picturesque tourist haven and a lonely place of captivity—show Antigua is not all it seems. The isolation of Antigua, the way its people's fortunes never seem to change, and the inability of the island to recover from the damage of colonialism contribute to the sense of its being a prison. As Kincaid pointed out in Section 1, many native Antiguans can't afford to leave the island, even if they would like to.


Eventually, the masters left ... the slaves were freed, in a kind of way.

Section 4

Though slavery has been officially illegal for many years, the legacies of the master–slave dynamic linger with both the colonizers and the colonized. Kincaid shows how even the masters' descendants (the tourists) have to contend with the legacy of slavery and the ways they continue to perpetuate racism. The dynamic of slavery continues with black Antiguans being trapped in poverty and customer service positions, while wealthy whites have the mobility to visit and purchase portions of Antigua.


Once they are no longer slaves ... they are just human beings.

Section 4

Kincaid concludes the essay by proposing a relationship in which former slaves are complex, imperfect "human beings" just as their former masters are. Without the polarities of "rubbish" master and "exalted" slave, white Westerners and black Antiguans have to find new ways to relate to one another.

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