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Andrea Levy

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English Literature

Andrea Levy is an English author of Jamaican descent who, once she began writing in her mid-thirties, wrote with an insatiable hunger to uncover her family history and the history of the Caribbean. What is most remarkable about Levys novels is their relentlessly hopeful spirit that is sustained by Levy’s charming humour.

Andrea Levy: Biography

Andrea Levy happened upon writing in her mid-thirties. A decade later, she published a novel that has been included in the national canon.

Childhood

Andrea Levy was born in Archway, London, on 7 March 1956 and was raised in a council estate in Highbury, London. Levys father, Winston Levy, travelled from Jamaica to London on the Empire Windrush ship in 1948. Her mother, Amy Levy, followed soon after. Her parents were part of the Windrush Generation, the name given to Caribbean immigrants who settled in Britain in the post-war period (1948-1970).

Levy confessed that she grew up believing she was white. In fact, it wouldnt be until she was in her late twenties that she would come to terms with her blackness and Jamaican heritage.

Education and career

Levy was creative at heart. In the mid-1970s, she studied textile design at Middlesex Polytechnic. Afterwards, she returned to London, her lifelong home, and worked in the costume departments of the Royal Opera House and the BBC. It was around this time that she met her, husband Bill Mayblin, with whom she started a graphic design company.

A series of riots occurred in areas with a high Caribbean population in the 1980s, and as a result, black men were more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. It was amidst this tense climate that Levy was forced to confront her identity as a black British woman. At a racism awareness workshop at her workplace, employees were asked to go to one side of the room if they were white and to the other if they were black. Levy went to the white side. This incident made her confront the fact of her race.

Writing

Levys body of work consists of 5 novels:

  • Every Light in the House Burnin (1994).
  • Never Far from Nowhere (1996).
  • Fruit of the Lemon (1999).
  • Small Island (2004).
  • The Long Song (2010).

She also published a collection of short stories entitled Six Stories and an Essay (2014).

Andrea Levy: Facts

A learning enthusiast, Levy decided to pick up a creative writing evening class at City Lit College. In her writing, Levy found a clever, funny voice and a means of exploring her family history and her identity and experiences as a black British woman.

I began to write about my family and how we lived in this country (UK), and what our experiences were. Also my dad had recently died and I wanted to write about that experience as well. I thought I was going to be able to immerse myself in the black British experience through fiction, and I couldnt, because it wasnt there. I thought, Actually there is a hole here where the black British experience is missing. So I thought, Hey, Ill do it, Ill start. [Laughter]

(Andrea Levy, ‘An Interview with Andrea Levy, 2015).1

Levy published her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin, in 1994. It was a semi-autobiographical novel about a family of Windrush immigrants and their children living in 1960s North London. It was difficult to find a publisher who was interested in the story.

Her second novel, Never Far from Nowhere, was published shortly thereafter in 1996. The novel is once again set in a council estate, this time in the 1970s, and it follows the lives of two English sisters of Jamaican descent. Vivien has a white complexion and passes for white; Olives skin is darker, and she has a harder time fitting in. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize, a prestigious award for women authors of English novels.

Levy grew up feeling a disconnect from her Jamaican ancestry. In 1998, fifty years after her father had arrived in England on the Windrush, Levy visited Jamaica for the first time. She was greeted with affection and an eagerness to share the family history. This journey inspired her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon (1999), in which the protagonist, Faith Jackson, journeys to Jamaica and uncovers a rich family history. The book won the Best of the Best Orange Prize.

Levy travels back in time in Small Island (2004) to tell the story of the Windrush generation. It was an international success. It won several awards, notably another Orange Prize, Best of the Best, and the Whitbread Book of the Year. In Levys final novel, The Long Song (2010), she faced, with trepidation, the history of slavery in the Caribbean. The novel was yet another success, earning the Walter Scott Prize.

In 2014, Levy published a collection of short stories entitled Six Stories and an Essay (2014).

Levys novels mirror the authors own journey in coming to terms with her racial identity and ancestry. Through her novels, Levy was, in a way, writing her own biography, her own family history, and cementing the Caribbean Windrush immigrant experience in English history and in the canon of English literature.

Andrea Levy: Cause of Death

Andrea Levy died, aged 62, on 14 February 2019 from breast cancer. Even in the face of death, Levy found joy and humour, light-heartedly adopting the motto that everybody dies.

Andrea Levy: Books and short stories

Small Island and The Long Song were both adapted by the BBC as short television series. In 2019, Small Island was adapted for the stage at the National Theatre.

Small Island (2004)

Small Island is told from the perspectives of black Windrush immigrants Gilbert, Hortense, and white, English-born Queenie and Bernard. The novel is split into chapters that take place in 1948 and chapters that take place Before 1948. Queenie is the sheltered, well-meaning but flawed white landlady to Gilbert and Hortense. Gilbert served in the RAF during World War II and returned to England to live on the Windrush in 1948. He and Hortense get married so that Hortense can come with Gilbert to England. Hortense is proud and high-class and is disappointed in derelict England. Bernard, Queenies husband, is a racist who also served in the British Army in WWII.

The Long Song (2010)

The Long Song is written as the memoir of a former Jamaican slave, July, now an elderly woman. It takes place during the end of slavery and the early years of emancipation. Jamaica had no surviving slave narratives; there were no first-hand accounts of what it was like to be a slave in the Caribbean. Thats when Levy realised the power of fiction, using fiction to imagine what it was like to live in the turbulent period leading up to, and just after, emancipation.

African slaves were forced to work on sugar plantations in the British colony of Jamaica. The majority of black Jamaicans are descendants of slaves.

As with her other novels, even when facing the most horrible facts of Jamaican history, Levy infuses the work with moments of strength, joy, and hope.

Six Stories and an Essay (2014)

Levys collection of short stories approaches familiar topics from new angles: issues of immigration, identity, race, and prejudice are centre stage, and, as with her other fiction, Levys short stories strive to uncover the forgotten and untold stories of Jamaicans and their place in Britains empire.

The collection opens with an autobiographical essay, Back to My Own Country’, about empire, racism, colourism, and how writing helped Levy come to terms with her own identity.

The stories were written at different points in Levys career and are collected here in one volume:

  • The Diary is one of Levys early stories. It is about an over-qualified woman working an underpaid and underappreciated job in costume departments.
  • Deborah is an unsettling short story told from the perspective of a little girl called Fern living in a London council estate in the 1960s.
  • In That Polite Way that English People Have, the high-class Hortense Blossom Hunter, the prototype for Hortense in Small Island, navigates a disappointing and drab England.
  • Loose Change explores current attitudes and prejudices toward migrants and refugees in the UK.
  • The Empty Pram is a story set in 1948, in which a black woman is falsely accused of kidnapping a baby. The story is about racism and racial profiling.
  • Uriahs War is Levys most celebrated short story. It is personal to Levy, whose grandfather, she discovered, had fought in the First World War. The story pays tribute to the contributions of Caribbean soldiers during the First World War and highlights the injustices of colonialism and racism:

In consequence I turn my back upon Britain, my Motherland. The place I once believed was the seat of all that was good in my life. And turn my face to my island home of Jamaica This war was fought for the principles of democracy and freedom. I now demand those principles for the black man.

(Andrea Levy, Uriahs War, Six Stories and an Essay, 2015).2

Andrea Levy: Themes

Levys work stays with the topic of exploring and giving a voice to black Jamaican experience and history. With this focus, Levy explores themes of race, gender, class, human strength, human relationships, and human folly.

Shared histories

In her novels, Levy explores her own family history and, more broadly, the histories of Jamaica and Britain. They affirm the interconnected history of Britain and the Caribbean, tracing a history of gross mistreatment of the Caribbean people, diving deeper into the past with each novel. The British brought Africans to work on plantations in the Caribbean. After emancipation, Jamaica struggled to build a diverse economy that could compete with other countries. During WWII, soldiers from the colonies, including Jamaica, served alongside white soldiers on the British front, yet, as Gilbert Josephs story in Small Island shows, they were only repaid with discrimination. When Britain asked for members of its colonies to help rebuild it after the war, the Windrush immigrants were treated as outsiders in Britain.

This interconnected history is one of imbalance. Through her novels, Levy hoped to snap the British public out of their amnesia towards the shared histories.

Race, identity, and discrimination

Levys novels are intimate explorations of racial and national identity. The earlier one deal with the black British experience in England. They evaluate questions of belonging and home, of the difficulty in considering England home when people of colour are discriminated against at a personal and institutional level. Her novels deal with what it means to be black, white, British, and Jamaican.

Levity, hope, and humour

Andrea Levys novels are often described as funny and moving. The humour of her novels often surprises those not familiar with her work, given the nature of her subject matter. Yet, by balancing moments of levity with tragic, emotional moments, Levy creates a rich account of her characters that puts a degree of power back into the lives of the downtrodden. Levy also likes to poke fun at her characters follies and shortcomings. No one is perfect in her novels, Hortense is proud and naïve, and the reader is able to laugh at her shortcomings without taking away from her struggle as a black immigrant in England. Levys novels are hopeful that progress can be achieved, that divides can be overcome.

The importance of Andrea Levy

Levy was one of the first black British authors of Jamaican descent to create compelling fiction about the experience of black Caribbean and Caribbean-descendent people living in Britain. Her fiction has helped to educate Britain and the world (her books have sold millions of copies internationally) about the struggles that immigrants and people of colour have faced at the hands of the British throughout history and in the contemporary moment.

Levys great achievement is covering such a broad history in her books in such an intimate way. Her readers are intimately acquainted with the characters inner lives, their flaws, and, ultimately, their ability to carve out joy in the midst of justice and despair.

Andrea Levy - Key takeaways

  • Andrea Levy is an English writer of Jamaican descent who was born in 1956 and died in 2019.
  • Levy was the child of Windrush immigrants and grew up in a council estate in Highbury, North London.
  • She is the author of five novels: Every Light in the House Burnin (1994), Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Small Island (2004), The Long Song (2010), and a collection of short stories, Six Stories and an Essay (2014).
  • Levys novels explore the shared histories of Jamaica and Britain and issues of race with a defining hopeful lightness.

1 Andrea Levy and Charles Henry Rowell, An Interview with Andrea Levy, Callaloo, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring 2015).

2 Andrea Levy, Six Stories and an Essay (Tinder Press, 2015).

Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy is an English author, known for her novels Small Island (2004) and The Long Song (2010). The daughter of Jamaican Windrush immigrants, Andrea Levy is preoccupied with tracing the black, Caribbean identity and experience in Britain, and the interconnectedness between Caribbean and British histories.

Andrea Levy is pronounced as ‘An-dree-a Lee-vee’.

Andrea Levy was 62 when she passed away in 2019 (1956–2019).

Small Island was published in 2004.

Andrea Levy wrote Small Island to tell the story of Windrush immigrants and bring attention to this forgotten part of British history.

Andrea Levy died from metastatic breast cancer on 14 February 2019.

Final Andrea Levy Quiz

Question

Andrea Levy's parents migrated from Jamaica to England in 1948. This makes them part of...?

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Answer

The Windrush Generation. The Windrush Generation refers to those who came from the Caribbean to England between 1948-1970.

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Question

Where did Andrea Levy grow up?

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Answer

In a council estate in Highbury, London.

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Question

Levy grew up confident and proud of her black, Caribbean identity and heritage.


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Answer

True.

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Question

Why were the 1980s an important decade in black British history?

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Answer

Issues of race and racism were highlighted and exacerbated.

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Question

What was the incident that Levy regarded as a watershed moment in coming to terms with her racial identity?

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Answer

At a racism awareness workshop at her workplace, employees were asked to go to one side of the room if they were white, and to the other, if they were black. Levy went to the white side. This incident made her confront the fact of her race.

Show question

Question

When did Levy start writing?

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Answer

Levy started writing in her mid-thirties when she picked up a creative writing class.

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Question

What was Levy's first novel?

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Answer

Never Far From Nowhere

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Question

When did Levy first visit Jamaica?

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Answer

In 1988, after she was already a published author.

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Question

What is Levy's last published work?

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Answer

The Long Song

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Question

What are Levy's two major works?

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Answer

Small Island (2004) and The Long Song (2010).

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Question

What are the three key themes of Levy's writing?

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Answer

  • Shared histories,
  • Race, identity and discrimination,
  • Levity, hope and humour.

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Question

Why is Andrea Levy an important author?

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Answer

  • Levy was one of the first black British authors of Jamaican descent to write about the experience of black Caribbean - and Caribbean-descendent - people living in Britain.
  • Her fiction has helped to educate Britain and the world about the struggles that immigrants and people of colour faced at the hands of the British throughout history.

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Question

What is the story of Levy's parents' migration to Britain?

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Answer

  • Levy's mother wasn't happy in Jamaica and wanted to move to the 'Mother Country'
  • She offered to pay for Levy's dad's trip on the Empire Windrush if he would call for her later once he had settled in
  • The two got married and Winston was off for England
  • Both were disappointed by life in England.

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Question

For how long was Jamaica a British colony?

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Answer

From 1655 to 1962.

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What was Britain's involvement in the slave trade in the Caribbean?

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Answer

Britain forced African slaves to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

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When did emancipation take place?

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In 1834, slaves in British colonies were emancipated, but had to work for free or for low pay as "apprentices" or for low pay until 1838.

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Question

The descendants of African slaves make up the majority of Jamaica's population.

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Answer

True.

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What was the economic situation in Jamaica after the abolishment of the slave trade?

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Answer

  • The decline of the sugar trade brought about a period of economic decline.
  • Black Jamaicans remained poor and disenfranchised.

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Question

New generations of black Jamaicans were educated under an education system modelled by the British. Kids were taught grand narratives of the British Empire.

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True

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Why did volunteers from the Caribbean fight on the British front during WWII?

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Answer

Many Caribbean citizens were proud of being British subjects and, therefore, proud to defend 'the Mother Country', and many paid out of their own pockets to do so.

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What is the British Nationality Act 1948?

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In 1948, the British Nationality Act passed, enabling British subjects from the colony to come to the UK to work there and to settle there.

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What is the Windrush Generation?

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Immigrants who moved from the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1970 became known as 'the Windrush Generation'.

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Question

Although segregation wasn't written in the law in Britain, as it was in America with the Jim Crow laws, many businesses and landlords refused to serve and house black immigrants and families.

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Answer

True.

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What is the 'colour bar'?

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The segregation of and the refusal to serve, hire and provide accommodation to non-whites. Many landlords refused to let rooms to black tenants.

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What was it like for women in the UK during the 1940s?

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  • Women joined the workforce during WWII but were still expected to perform domestic duties.
  • After the war, women had a new sense of power and fought for equality between the sexes.

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Question

What is postcolonialism?

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Answer

In literature, postcolonialism is a critical approach that analyses how works of literature produced in former colonies explore the extensive and long-lasting impacts of colonialism on colonised and formerly-colonised people and cultures.

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Why is Small Island considered a comic text?

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Answer

The novel balances a light-hearted tone with a serious tone and contains several comic elements, such as ironies and comical portrayal of human follies.

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When was Small Island published?

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2007

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Question

From whose perspective is the novel's prologue told?

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Hortense

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Summarise the prologue.

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  • Queenie goes to the British Empire Exhibition as a child
  • She meets a black man and they shake hands

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Who is Hortense raised by in Jamaica?

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She is raised by her father's cousins Mr Philip and Miss Ma, alongside their son Michael, and her grandmother, Miss Jewel, who is their servant.

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What happens during the hurricane that took place in Hortense's adolescence?

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  • Hortense takes shelter with Mrs Ryder
  • Michael finds them and comforts Mrs Ryder
  • Jealous of Michael and Mrs Ryder, Hortense tells everyone they are alone in the school together
  • Scandal ensues!

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Question

What is Hortense and Gilbert's plan for migrating to England?

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Answer

  • Hortense will give Gilbert the money for the trip
  • Hortense and Gilbert must get married to make it socially acceptable for Hortense to migrate with a man
  • He will find a place for them to live
  • She will join him once he does

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What jobs does Gilbert take over the course of the novel?

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  • RAF soldier
  • Coal shifter and driver
  • Postman driver

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Who is Elwood?

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Answer

  • Elwood is Gilbert's cousin
  • He's a proud Jamaican patriot
  • He encourages Gilbert to invest in a beekeeping business that fails

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How does Gilbert meet Queenie?

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Answer

He guides a mentally ill man home, Arthur Bligh, who is her father-in-law.

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Why does Queenie marry Bernard?

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Queenie was able to escape the farm she grew up on by living with her Aunt Dorothy in London. But when Aunt Dorothy dies, she is afraid she will have to return to the farm and marries Bernard as a way out.

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Why doesn't Bernard return home after being released from jail in India?

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Answer

He sleeps with a prostitute and is so afraid that he has contracted a sexually-transmitted disease that he cannot face Queenie. So he spends 2 years living in Brighton.

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Question

What is the unexpected event at the end of the novel?

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  • Queenie has been pregnant and she goes into labour
  • The baby is dark-skinned
  • The baby is Michael Roberts' son!
  • Queenie begs Hortense and Gilbert to take him

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Question

What are some words we can use to describe Hortense's character?

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Answer

  • Hortense has an overinflated sense of superiority
  • She is prejudiced and proud

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What is the problem with Queenie's character?

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Answer

Although she means well and opposes racial discrimination, she still holds prejudiced and backwards views about black people.

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What are the key narrative devices used in the novel?

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  • Multiple narrative voices
  • Non-linear storytelling

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Question

What are some aspects of comedy in the novel?

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Answer

  • Light-hearted tone
  • Irony
  • Comic misunderstandings
  • Mockery of human folly

Show question

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