Study Guide

A Small Place Analysis

By Jamaica Kincaid

  • Tone

    Passionate and Cynical

    Some people consider A Small Place to be an angry book, but we think it's a little more accurate to call it passionate.

    Our narrator is certainly willing to rage against the machine, like when she calls the tourist "an ugly human being" (1.5). But she gets equally emotional about the things she loves, like the old Antigua Public Library and the "sound of its quietness" (3.1). Sure, she's angry more often than not, but those emotions are only in response to circumstances. And as the book shows us time and again, those circumstances are not of her making.

    If you ask us, people call this book angry because the narrator is so cynical. We never get the sense that she has the solutions to any of Antigua's problems, and that's probably because she thinks those solutions don't exist. In fact, she plainly states that the only thing she wants is for "a way be found to make what happened not have happened" (2.3)—which is impossible. This uncompromising mindset shows a cynicism about the future of Antigua. But given the nation's past, we can't say we really blame her.

  • Genre

    Memoir; Nonfiction; Travel Literature

    A Small Place exists at a strange crossroads between genres.

    In many ways, it's a memoir; it seems to recount specific stories from Kincaid's early life in Antigua. However, any resemblance to Kincaid's actual life has been blurred through fictionalization—in fact, there's no explicit confirmation that the narrator is in fact Kincaid. We know we're grasping at straws on this one, but it's vague enough to bear mention.

    In other ways, it's simply a piece of non-fiction about Antigua. The bulk of the book is spent describing the social and political history of the country, using real facts to bolster the narrator's arguments. For what it's worth, you're probably most likely to find this book in the nonfiction section of your local bookstore.

    But there's enough fictionalization happening here that we can't define A Small Place as pure nonfiction. After all, Kincaid was never a tourist—that whole component is certainly made up, though also inspired by real life. In this way, A Small Place is a sort-of parody of travel literature, which typically promises to show a reader some new, exotic locale. Only instead of wanting you to visit, she just wants you to stay away.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Some places are just small, and the size of Antigua plays a large role (see what we did there?) in A Small Place. Antigua is filled with contradictions—it's a small, poor island in the middle of nowhere that is regularly visited by some of the wealthiest people on earth. Stuck on this drought-ridden but beautiful island, Antiguans are forced to be pawns in rich dudes' games. In other words, their place in Antiguan society is reduced, or made small by the rich folks who mold the island toward their own aims.

    Importantly, the Antiguan people don't fully understand how special Antigua is because most have never lived anywhere else. And because of this, they lack the perspective needed to comprehend the things that are happening to them. They have not seen things done differently, so they don't know just how much better life might be socio-politically speaking. So while Antigua might be a small place, there are some big issues bubbling under the surface.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    A Small Place is not your typical novel; it contains no plot, no cast of characters, and very few fleshed-out scenes. Instead, the book engages the reader directly in an attempt to foster some sort of understanding—the reader is the one going on the journey, not the characters.

    So it makes sense that the book closes with a brief chapter extolling the beauty of Antigua. It's this beauty that makes the island so desired by so many powerful people, and that draws tourists back time and again. And it's this beauty that fosters a "strange, unusual perception of time" (1.3) amongst the Antiguan people.

    Antiguans know that "the unreal way in which it is beautiful now is the unreal way in which it was always beautiful" (4.1). Although some things have changed, the island itself—and the lives they live on it—haven't changed much of the past hundred years. Who's to say that there are any changes coming in the future?

  • Setting

    A Very Small Place

    A Small Place is as dependent on its setting as Mario is on Luigi. Everyone knows that the fella in green is the real brains behind the operation. But it's hard to define the "real" Antigua. It seems like everyone who comes in contact with this small Caribbean nation has a different concept of what it represents. In fact, the best way to sort this out is to look at the ways that different groups view Antigua. Check it:

    • Tourists look at Antigua as a getaway from their boring lives back home. Sure, they love its beauty, but what they really love is the fact that it is "backwards in that charming way" (1.5). It's all so quaint to them… but this is kind of like going on the King Kong ride at Universal Studios (R.I.P.) and then claiming you went to New York. Not the same thing by a long shot.
    • The people who live in the Mill Reef Club see Antigua as a connection to the past. The only problem with this is that Antigua's past is filled with slavery, colonialism, and blatant racism—things that Antiguan natives have no interest in going back to. It's no coincidence that they always "seemed not to like Antiguans (black people) at all" (2.3). But they have money, and that gives them a say in the things that happen in Antigua.
    • Despite being the only people on this list who actually really live in Antigua, the Antiguan people have the least-formed view of what the country represents. Unlike the other groups mentioned here, they have no "big historical moment to compare the way they are now to the way they used to be" (4.1). They've lived on this island for a long time and don't plan on leaving anytime soon, so it's a bit of a bubble for them.

    The book actually ends with a long description of the physical beauty of Antigua—its "unreal-looking grass" and "one-room houses painted in unreal shades of pink and yellow" (4.1)—but this feels like little more than an after-thought. The natural beauty of Antigua is the country's one constant: no matter how much bloodshed or corruption happens, it'll remain just as beautiful as ever. The Antiguan people know this, but only time will tell if the tourists and Mill Reef Clubbers figure it out, too.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Kincaid writes clearly and precisely, so you shouldn't have any trouble following what's going on. There are some pretty long paragraphs too (we're talking pages upon pages), but they're rarely confusing. In other words, you've totally got this.

  • Writing Style

    Prim and Proper

    Kincaid writes with some of the most precise English we've ever encountered here in the Shmoop-iverse.

    Sometimes, this hyper-precision is used as an effect, like her explanation that the Mill Reef Club doesn't like "Antiguans (black people) at all" (2.3). We see parentheses pop up a lot throughout the book, sometimes to reveal the narrator's inner feelings, and other times to thoroughly explain her ideas, like in the example above.

    As the author, Kincaid has a tendency to stretch paragraphs out for ages. Oddly, though, these paragraphs rarely become confusing because Kincaid writes in such proper English. We can't help but see a similarity between this stylistic choice and the narrator's anger at being forced to speak English: In Kincaid's precision, the narrator proves that she has mastered the "language of the criminal" (2.3) that she resents so much.

    All in all, Kincaid's style is completely unique—at times super proper, at others casual and personal. The only things that never change are her biting sense of humor and absolute fearlessness.

  • The Library

    Like most things in Antigua, the library has long been abandoned by the people in charge. Sure, the cats from the Mill Reef Club say that they want to fix it, but they don't do jack when push comes to shove—after all, some businessman is planning to "develop that part of St. John's" (3.1) into a tourism district. There's a lot more money to be made off of shops selling tchotchkes than lending books, and as has been the case for generations, the investment for the powers that be on Antigua is in outsiders instead of the Antiguan masses.

    There's a new library across town, but its sorry state only emphasizes this hypocrisy. The Mill Reef Club folks could easily pay to renovate the new building (or even buy a new one), but they hold on to Antigua's past by refusing to help rebuild its future. Both the narrator and people from the Mill Reef Club are nostalgic about the old Antigua, but they simply "don't have the same old Antigua in mind" (3.1)—one longs for the days of slavery, while the other most definitely does not.

    The library, then, represents the chasm between these groups, and the ways in which oppression takes on new forms instead of actually disappearing.

  • The Mill Reef Club

    In our heads, the Mill Reef Club is full of people like Mr. Burns, Richie Rich, and (for all of you 90s kids) Scrooge McDuck. In other words, it's a place for people with a lot of money but not much empathy.

    The Mill Reef Club shows that Antigua's social structure still favors white people over black people. The narrator says it simply: they "came […] took things that were not [theirs], and […] did not even, for appearance's sake, ask first" (2.6). Although the Mill Reef Club members weren't the first people to do this, they're the only ones that are still perpetuating that old mentality.

    It's as clear as day. When the club first opened, "the only Antiguans (black people) allowed to go there were servants" (2.3). And now, a prominent socialite from the club regularly refers to adult Antiguan women as "girls" (3.2). Ugh. The people from the Mill Reef Club are still living in the past—and we mean that in the worst kind of way. To dig into this a bit deeper, be sure to read up on the library elsewhere in this section.

  • Angels From the Realm Circus

    Step right up ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, cats, dogs, and pet pigs, too. For one night only, enjoy a performance from Antigua's famed circus—Angels From the Realm.

    Ironically, the kooky carnival has set up their base of operations at the old Antigua Public Library. Elsewhere in this section, we discuss the symbolism of the old library and how it represents the many broken promises made to the Antiguan people and ongoing racism and oppression. So what does it mean that this place has been turned into a circus?

    The narrator gives us a hint when she suggests that the show be called "Angels From the Realm of Innocence" (3.1). She expands upon this idea later, saying that Antiguans are either "eternal innocents, or artists […] or lunatics […] or an exquisite combination of all three" (3.5). In other words, though evidence of their oppression is right in front of them (there's no better example than the state of the old Antiguan Library), they are either unable or unwilling to see it. That this place of learning had been turned into a place of entertainment only illustrates this fact further.

    Consider it this way: Circuses provide distraction, a break from the daily grind that inspires feelings of delight. Libraries, however, foster learning—critical thinking and engagement with the past, present, and future. Since oppression rages on in Antigua, it's understandable that the Antiguan people are drawn toward the circus, but at the same time, it's clear that what they really need is a library brimming with books.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Second Person

    It's rare to see a book written in the second person, and it's even rarer to see one that knocks it out of the park. We talk about Kincaid's use of second-person narration in our analysis of the tourist over in the "Characters" section, so we'll keep things short and sweet here.

    In A Small Place, Kincaid uses the second person in a confrontational matter, casting the reader as the story's antagonist. This is challenging to readers, but ultimately rewarding, too, because by immersing yourself in the story, you gain a better understanding of the issues at stake.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis


    Always the nonconformist, Jamaica Kincaid wrote a novel that shatters all seven of Booker's stinkin' plots. Here's why:

    • There are only two real characters (the narrator and "you"), neither of whom actually does much of anything.
    • There are few scenes; we mostly just float around the island and learn its history.
    • There's no plot. This one's self-explanatory, right?

    Ultimately, A Small Place reads more like non-fiction than fiction in that it explores a single subject from a variety of different angles. In a book like this, the story is really about increasing the reader's knowledge about the subject at hand.

  • Plot Analysis


    Cleared for Landing

    Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just touched down in Antigua, a small Caribbean island with tons of corruption and some nasty history. You don't know much about that, though—you're just a tourist looking to blow off some steam in an exotic location. It's time to treat yo self

    Rising Action

    Terrible Tourists

    Kincaid takes you on a mini-tour of her home country. Instead of showing you the sights, though, she explains (in detail) how much you are hurting Antigua with your presence. Plus, the people of Antigua hate you because it feels like you're rubbing your wealth in their faces. Yikes.


    Learning Your History

    Kincaid shifts her tone a bit: Instead of critiquing the tourist for his/her ignorant actions, she decides to explain the historical reasons why Antigua is in such rough shape. These reasons include the legacy of slavery and colonialism, rampant government corruption, and the hidden costs of the tourism industry.

    Falling Action

    Getting Personal

    We learn even more about Antigua's struggles when Kincaid talks about trying to rebuild the old Antigua Public Library. No matter how hard she tries, she can't get any wealthy people to support her plan. This becomes a metaphor for the larger issues holding Antigua back from reaching its potential.


    Forever a Small Place

    We're left with the idea that Antigua doesn't change. The people who have lived there have gone through all sorts of struggles, but the island remains largely the same—a.k.a. super beautiful—and will remain so for the future.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    You're a tourist, okay? You like doing tourist stuff but aren't very interested in getting to know the people who inhabit the places you visit. Frankly, you're just happy to be away from your boring life back home in a first-world country. Next stop: Antigua.

    Act II

    Not so fast. A disembodied narrator enters the picture, pointing out the many ways that the Antiguan people have been oppressed—starting with the slave trade, passing through the era of British rule, and culminating in the current corrupt government. The narrator uses the old Antigua Public Library as an example of this: The library has been a wreck for over a decade, but she can't convince any of Antigua's wealthy residents to help fund its reconstruction

    Act III

    The narrator lightens up a bit and tells you that Antigua is a simply stunning place; that's why so many people (like you) are drawn to it. Antiguans, on the other hand, have no other context for its wondrous beauty, no way of fully appreciating the thing they have. Despite all of the horrible tragedies that have occurred over the country's existence, this natural beauty remains unchanged.