Study Guide

A Small Place Memory and the Past

By Jamaica Kincaid

Memory and the Past

The sign hangs there […] and you might see this as a sort of quaintness on the part of these islanders, these people descended from slaves—what a strange, unusual perception of time they have. (1.3)

The library becomes the focal point of A Small Place's view of time. The contradiction between the library's disrepair and the tourist's reaction to it illustrates two very different relationships with time.

I can imagine that if my life had taken a certain turn, there would be the Barclays Bank, and there I would be, both of us in ashes. Do you every try to understand why people like me cannot get over the past? (2.2)

Here we can see an example of the past still affecting the present—Barclay's Bank is making money off of the same people whose ancestors they sold into slavery. Are Antiguans expected to ignore this fact when it's staring them in the face?

I was sitting across from an Englishman, one of those smart people who know how to run things [...] but who now, since the demise of the empire, have nothing to do; they look so sad, sitting on the rubbish heap of history. (2.3)

Although their histories are intertwined, the English and Antiguans have very different relationships with the past. For Brits like this charming fellow, the fact that his country—a former empire—has its best days behind it must feel pretty deflating.

This wrong can never be made right and only the impossible can make me still: can a way be found to make what happened not have happened? (2.3)

The past cannot be undone. Although many of the individuals who oppressed her people are no longer around, their actions still affect the course of history.

Have you ever wondered why it is that all we seemed to have learned from you is how to corrupt our societies and how to be tyrants? You will have to accept that this is mostly your fault. (2.6)

Again, Kincaid emphasizes the way that the past defines the present. She's doesn't excuse the government for being corrupt, but rightfully points out that the only example for rule they have in the past is a corrupt one.

As for what we were like before we met you, I no longer care. No periods of time over which my ancestors held sway, no documentation of complex civilizations, is any comfort to me. (2.6)

Although the past is important to Kincaid, it's most important insofar as it relates to the present. What's the value of an illustrious past if it was thoroughly destroyed along the way to the present?

In a small place, people cultivate small events. The small event is isolated, blown up, turned over and over, and then absorbed into the everyday. (3.2)

Those of us who live in wealthy countries might not realize how different it is to live in a small, isolated place. The surroundings never change, the people never change, and events from the past don't seem so very far away at all. Then again, if you're from a small rural community, you might kind of know what this is like.

The people in a small place cannot give an exact account, a complete account, of themselves. The people in a small place cannot give an exact account, a complete account of events. (3.3)

Essentially, here the narrator is saying that people who live in places like Antigua lack the perspective needed to fully understand themselves or their place in the world.

To the people in a small place, the division of Time into the Past, the Present, and the Future does not exist. An event that occurred one hundred years ago might be as vivid to them as if it were happening at this very moment. (3.3)

Whoa—now this one is a mind-bender. A lot has happened over the last hundred years in Antigua, not least of which is its liberation from England. And for the Antiguan people, this all blurs together.

It is just a little island. The unreal way in which it is beautiful now is the unreal way in which it was always beautiful. (4.1)

Now this might be why there's no difference between the past, present, and future in Antigua—Antiguans are born and raised in a place where the natural world never seems to change.