A Small Place | Study Guide

Jamaica Kincaid

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A Small Place | Section 4 | Summary

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Summary

Antigua's physical beauty seems "unreal" sometimes to Kincaid. The sky is too blue, the sun too bright, the clouds too white, the colors and scents of the flowers too vivid. The days begin and end with a dramatic flourish, and the sun rises with "an explosion of reds on the horizon." Even the smell of the lilies is intense, "with a sweetness so thick it makes you slightly sick." The grass also looks too run down and the cows too poor to be real. The village of Table Hill Gordon in Antigua looks too "beautiful in its pauperedness" to be real. The colors in the Saturday morning market, the people's way of speaking English, their anger and their laughter, are all beautiful enough to be "not real like any other real thing that there is." The sky seems close enough to touch.

The beauty seems like a prison, trapping its residents inside. Kincaid wonders about the effect of living daily "in such heightened, intense surroundings." Antigua has had "no big historical moment" of change, like a world war or revolution. Their island has always been beautiful in the same way it is now.

The small island, "nine miles wide by twelve miles long," was settled centuries ago by "human rubbish from Europe" who enslaved "noble and exalted human beings from Africa." The masters left and the slaves were freed "in a kind of way" much later. Modern Antiguans are descendants of the slaves. But once masters stop being masters and slaves stop being slaves, they're no longer rubbish or noble. They're all "just human beings."

Analysis

Section 4 functions as an epilogue to the essay and an ode to the Antigua Kincaid loves. She moves from the grim reality ending Section 3 to an idyllic, fantasy-like description. The beach descriptions recall the tourist's arrival at the beach in Section 1 ("Oh, what beauty!"). While Section 1 showed the wealthy outsider's point of view, distancing the reader and having them take the perspective of the tourist, Section 4 invites the reader to see Antigua through the eyes of someone who calls the island home.

The description of the island's physical beauty is sincere and thoughtful. Images from Section 1 recur: the drought affecting the grass, the fine sand, the blue of the sky and the sea. The essay has come full circle. Now the reader sees the beach again with more knowledge of what Antigua is really like. The sensory description grows darker as it continues, encompassing not just the brochure-friendly beach but the underfed and miserable animals, the "flies asleep in the corner of the dog's mouth." The return to liveliness and bright colors, with the people at the market, is positive but temporary. The people are trapped.

Kincaid offers an image of Antigua as isolated from the world. Like "stage sets for a play" it's frozen in time. The "prison" metaphor recalls the many references to crime in the essay. But the criminals, the colonizers and government officials, are not the ones imprisoned. The "ordinary people" are. The title "A Small Place" comes to mean both Antigua's physical size and its residents' breadth of experience. Again Kincaid highlights the importance of historical moments and "events" in people's sense of history. Without the capacity to put events in their proper place Antiguans can't have a "revolution" or "Age of Anything." There has been no change, no growth, no evolution, since the era of slavery. Have the slaves really been freed?

The final paragraph sums up the main power dynamic Kincaid has explored in the essay: the dynamic between colonizer and colonized, or tourist and native, or master and slave. Like the tourist in Section 1, the "human rubbish from Europe" enter Antigua hoping to feel "less lonely and empty." This time she identifies the malaise as "a European disease" or a condition resulting from privilege and entitlement.

She directs another aside to the reader: "Supposing you were to think about" who real Antiguans are and what they are like? Kincaid knows the concerns of Antiguans are probably still far away from the reader's daily life. Now she issues an invitation for the reader to broaden their perspective.

Her final few sentences upend the master/slave dynamic. Slaves are "no longer noble and exalted," making freedom another kind of obstacle, similar to the struggle of Antiguans to achieve responsible self-rule and self-determination. If former masters and former slaves are equally imperfect human beings, living complicated lives, how should they act toward one another? How should they see themselves? Can white tourists and black Antiguans ever overcome the dynamics colonialism put in place? As Kincaid looks toward the future of Antigua, she knows Antiguans, and white Americans and Europeans, will have to consider the answers to these questions.

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