Study Guide

A Small Place Themes

By Jamaica Kincaid

  • Power

    Although Antigua is a small place, throughout its history, the country's been ruled by all sorts of corrupt leaders—think: racist colonists, wealthy businesspeople, and corrupt tyrants. Ugh. In A Small Place, Kincaid traces the historical roots of Antigua's modern problems with less-than-optimistic results. Regardless, her straightforward approach teaches readers more about the nature of power than a million episodes of House of Cards or A Game of Thrones. Don't believe us? Read on.

    Questions About Power

    1. In what ways did the British abuse their power over Antigua?
    2. Does Antigua's history affect the current power system in the country? Explain your answer.
    3. In what ways does Kincaid link unchecked capitalism with corrupt power?
    4. Who holds the most power in Antigua? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    In A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid argues that the modern globalized economy helps tyrants dominate small countries like Antigua.

    The legacy of English colonialism makes it all but impossible for Antigua to have non-corrupt governmental officials.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    Ah, the life of a tourist… There's nothing better than exploring an exotic locale, right? But have you ever thought about what it feels like to be on the other side of the equation? In A Small Place, we get a glimpse of the world from the eyes of someone born and raised in a tourist destination, and the results aren't pretty—we're talking racial discrimination and outsiders conspiring with corrupt government officials. So while we're positioned as outsiders in this book, it quickly becomes clear that the people being treated as "other" are the Antiguan people themselves. Ugh.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. Why are tourists bad people, in Kincaid's eyes?
    2. Why are Antiguans more suspicious of people from the Middle East than people from the U.S. and Europe?
    3. What could the British colonialists have done to make Antiguans feel less like "others"?
    4. How is a distrust of foreigners related to racism?

    Chew on This

    In Kincaid's eyes, tourists are bad people because they are essentially rubbing their wealth in poor peoples' faces.

    By viewing natives as the "other," tourists dehumanize them and deny them individual identities.

  • Race

    Some people think that racism isn't a big deal these days, but they're as wrong as a ridiculously unprepared Miss Teen USA candidate. Just look at A Small Place, for example. The novel outlines the ways that racism has shaped the small island nation of Antigua, from the slave trade that funded its wealthiest citizens to the blatant discrimination faced by native Antiguans within the school system. Kincaid pulls no punches, but that's a good thing—her writing hits so hard and so well that you might as well call her Manny Pacquiao.

    Questions About Race

    1. In what ways do Antiguans still feel racism to the present day? Give examples from the text.
    2. In your opinion, why do Antiguans not realize that the English are racist? Turn to the text to support your claim.
    3. How is racism coded into the social structure of Antigua?
    4. In what ways are race and class related in A Small Place?

    Chew on This

    A Small Place shows us how racist institutions associated with slavery still hinder Antigua to the present day.

    In a cruel twist, Antiguan citizens are treated worse in their own country than foreigners simply because of their race.

  • Memory and the Past

    Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it—or repeat a few history classes in college, at the very least. A Small Place offers up a lesson in the cyclical nature of the past, revealing longstanding historical roots to modern problems. Antigua has witnessed more than its fair share of major historical events, creating a very unique sense of memory and the past among the Antiguan people. We don't want to give it all away, but let's just say that their conception of time is about as twisted as Dr. Who's.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why do modern Antiguans have an "obsession" with slavery?
    2. What does Kincaid mean when she says that time moves differently in Antigua?
    3. How does the old library illustrate the way the past shapes the present?
    4. Is Kincaid right to think about the past so much? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Kincaid perfectly illustrates how tiny nations like Antigua have a different relationship with time than large industrialized nations like the U.S.

    For Kincaid, the past never goes away—it is always affecting the present, and you can always see its footprints all around.

  • Slavery

    The shadow of slavery hangs heavy over the events of A Small Place. Although the Antiguan people have been emancipated for generations, their past still weighs heavily on their present. Many Antiguans are proud of their people for overcoming slavery, many are still angry about injustices never made right, and many can't see the ways that the institution still continues, in subtler ways, in the present day. Although subjects as grim as slavery aren't exactly fun to read about, learning about the past can hopefully help us improve the present.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. What is the connection between slavery and the hotel training school? How about to the destroyed library?
    2. What does the story of the Barclay brothers tell us about slavery in Antigua?
    3. Do you agree with Kincaid that slavery made the West rich? Explain your answer.
    4. How does Kincaid link capitalism with slavery?

    Chew on This

    Kincaid argues that the institution of slavery is—in many ways—the predecessor to the modern capitalist system.

    If there's one thing that Kincaid criticizes the Antiguan people for, it's their inability to see how slavery (in other names) persists to the present-day.

  • Visions of Antigua

    Visions of Antigua? At some points in A Small Place, they seem more like hallucinations. The novel takes readers on a tour of the small Caribbean island, giving us no-good tourists an up-close-and-personal view of the country Kincaid both loves and hates. You'll see the way the country has changed over decades of corrupt leadership, learn what makes the Antiguan people tick, and come to understand what the future might hold for this small but tumultuous place. Kincaid might not always be head over heels for Antigua, but she'll never stop loving the place she comes from.

    Questions About Visions of Antigua

    1. In what ways has Antigua changed over Kincaid's lifetime? How has it stayed the same?
    2. How do the people from the Mill Reef Club view Antigua?
    3. Why are so many different types of people drawn to Antigua?
    4. What is Kincaid's relationship to her fellow Antiguans?

    Chew on This

    Although Kincaid is more than willing to call out the British for their atrocities, it seems like there is a part of her that's nostalgic for their presence in Antigua.

    Antiguans have the unfortunate distinction of living in an area so beautiful that people from all over the world want to take it over.

  • Wealth

    As with so many things, Wu-Tang says it best: "cash rules everything around me." In fact, you might as well consider that the unofficial subtitle of A Small Place. The small island of Antigua is home to some of richest and some of the poorest people in the world, leading to quite a few problems. Want to get rich? Well, you better sell drugs or hook up with corrupt officials (or both). Not into that? Just start an elaborate scam instead. A Small Place shows us the consequences of a soaring wealth disparity, rampant corruption, and general shadiness.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. What does the rise of Barclays Bank say about the economic system of Antigua?
    2. In what ways are Antiguans prevented from building wealth?
    3. How do government officials line their own pockets?
    4. Do you agree with Kincaid's views on capitalism? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In A Small Place, we're shown the negative consequences of wealth being concentrated in the hands of the few.

    Although Kincaid has nothing against people from other countries, she does have something against those who wield their wealth like weapons.

  • Language and Communication

    You can't blame Kincaid for being obsessed with the power of language. She is a writer, after all. Over the course of A Small Place, we learn how language can be used for good and for evil, to help people rise up or to crush their spirits. Sounds like heady stuff, right? Well, have no fear, because Shmoop is here to make these mental gymnastics as easy to swallow as an ice cream sundae. Now that's speaking our language.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How did the English use language to control Antigua?
    2. Why do modern Antiguans communicate more poorly than those of Kincaid's generation?
    3. Why does the narrator resent the fact that English is her native language?
    4. What communication barriers exist between tourists and natives?

    Chew on This

    The narrator resents the English because they wiped out her people's native culture and, more importantly, their language.

    Although the narrator hates the English, the one thing she respects about them is their love of language.