Study Guide

Little Bee (The Other Hand) Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Chris Cleave

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Sarah's Missing Middle Finger

The novel does a fair bit of obsessing over Sarah's finger. And for good reason – it's the symbol that holds together the different parts of the novel while also deepening its conversations about loss, sacrifice, life, salvation, the nature of justice in the contemporary world. That's one pretty powerful symbol.

In this section, we compare what the finger means for Sarah with what it means to the man who took it from her.

The Hunter

It's not insignificant that the finger in question is the middle one – the one you wave in the air like you just don't care. The hunter, being paid by oil companies to silence Little Bee and her sister, makes this explicit:

"White man been giving me this finger all my life. Today you can give it me to keep. Now cut off your middle finger mister and give it me." (4.294)

The hunter's comment refers to the colonization of his country (by England) but also probably to his own personal experience with white people. He sees Andrew as not only a symbol of all those other white guys, but as one such white man himself – one with money and attitude, who wants to take from Nigeria rather than give.

What the hunter seems to want from Andrew is acknowledgement of the tragedy faced by Nigeria and his role in it, however indirect. And so the hunter wants a sacrifice that is both symbolically potent and physically severe. He wants Andrew to understand that in this world, justice and salvation and safety have a high price – a price beyond money. It's all really ironic because the hunter is a brutal killer and a rapist. He's likely a victim-turned-victimizer who trades in a twisted and rough justice.

Sarah

The stump of Sarah's middle finger is a major catalyst for her trips down memory lane, which begin at Andrew's funeral. Here's one example:

I sat in the pew, massaging the stump of my finger, and found myself acknowledging for the first time that my husband had been doomed since the day we met Little Bee. (2.17)

This line serves as an intro for the series of tangled memories Sarah will have, and through which the story – including how she lost that finger (she cut it off when it was clear Andrew wasn't going to cut off his) – is revealed.

Sarah seems to be using her memories to help figure out how to deal with her present situation, and to think about who she is and who she wants to be. Her stump is a symbol of all that she's willing to sacrifice in order to do the right thing. The sense of justice Sarah develops over the course of the novel is in stark contrast to that of the hunter, the man responsible for the loss of her finger. Or is it? Are there any parallels? What do you think Sarah's finger symbolizes for Little Bee? Charlie? Lawrence? What did it symbolize for Andrew?

The Colors of Little Bee's Life

Colors are important to Little Bee. They're key tools in her storyteller's toolkit. She uses them as imagery to help us really visualize what she describes. She also uses them to help us get a sense of how she feels about her life and her world.

If you've read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Little Bee might remind you of Death, that novel's narrator, in how she uses colors. Death (a being who transports the souls of the dead from their bodies to the afterlife) uses colors of the sky (which are edible, num) to comfort himself and distract himself from his grim occupation. Similarly, Little Bee uses colors to help process her environment and emotions, to comfort herself, and to survive.

So, which colors, then? Well, here are lots of them mentioned in the book, but we'll focus on two: the color gray and sari girl's bag of lemon yellow.

The Color Gray

I am a born again citizen of the developing world and I will prove to you that the color of my life is gray. (1.36)

Gray, as we learned in preschool, is what happens when we mix black and white together. It's also a common symbol for anything that we can't quite place neatly in one category or another. In the case of Little Bee, her identification with the color gray suggests that she feels numb and muted as a result of her experiences.

Gray is also a symbol of the hybrid identity she's developing. Because of her circumstances, the development of this mixed identity has been really uncomfortable. Had she spent her first two years with, say, Sarah and Andrew, instead of in the immigration detention center, the experience might be way more positive for her. Likewise, if she wasn't so acutely aware that she, an immigrant, is not welcome in England, she might not feel like such a monstrosity. But, as it is, she feels like a freak, somebody who belongs nowhere.

It's important to keep in mind that this is only how Little Bee sees things some of the time, just one aspect of her feelings about her life. And, there's some suggestion that she's beginning to regard her hybridity as a beautiful thing, something that doesn't result in gray, but in fresh, vibrant, living colors. For example, she gets extremely hopeful and excited whenever she sees people of different skin colors interacting. Remember how happy she is when she spots a bi-racial couple and their child in London? Or when she substitutes her black finger for Sarah's missing white one? Or, the final moment of the novel – children of different colors playing together? There are some bright colors on the horizon after all.

The Bag of Lemon Yellow

When Little Bee and the other three girls are released from Black Hill Immigration Removal Center, they're given clear plastic bags containing their (very few) possessions. Little Bee describes how she feels when she sees sari girl's bag, which is (oh, the irony!) completely empty. Or is it? Well, not exactly, depending on how you see things. Here's Little Bee's take:

"Why do you carry that bag, girl, if there is nothing in it?" I could see her [yellow] sari through it so I decided she was holding a bag full of lemon yellow. That is everything she owned when they let us girls out." (1.42)

This connects with the theme of "Hope" rather nicely, wouldn't you say? For all her talk of life being gray and all that, and preparing to kill herself if bad men come, Little Bee is actually a very hopeful person who tries to find goodness and beauty in whatever she encounters. Her reaction to sari girl's bag suggests that when everything we think is important gets taken from us, we must find something in that nothing, or at least try to, in order to keep on going. It demonstrates that Little Bee's moved on to problem-solving mode – no more suicide plots. She's training her eyes to see any possible opportunity for survival and safety now.

Viewing at the empty bag as a bag of lemon yellow is Little Bee looking for beauty and brightness so she and her readers aren't completely overwhelmed with all the gray. By clinging to the empty bag, sari girl expresses some of the same attitude Little Bee has. We might call it the at-least-I-have-a-plastic-bag attitude. It's an attitude that helps people in dire situations get through them, survive. The bag of lemon yellow also connects nicely with the sun and surf imagery at the end of the novel and is equally ambiguous and complex, a combination of hope and desperation.

Passages and Crossings

Notice that there are lots of mobile settings in the novel (and, no, we're not talking about phones) – the River Thames, the ocean, the cargo ship Little Bee stows away on to reach England, the train that takes her to London. These settings take on deep significance when we consider the theme of "Contrasting Regions." Characters cross a bunch of geographical boundaries, going from familiar lands to unfamiliar ones, and back again.

These geographical crossings parallel the rites of passage the characters undergo. Cleave says, "Little Bee is about two women who cross boundaries – emotional limits and international borders – that most people wouldn't cross" (source). As the characters cross back and forth between worlds, they also undergo what seems like continual processes of reinvention, adapting to the new realities they face each time.

Andrew's Study

Andrew's study is a site of some major transformations throughout the novel. Andrew has being doing research on asylum seekers and immigration detention centers since he met Little Bee in Nigeria. After his death, when Sarah finds his research in the study, she believes he was trying to write a book (somehow never told his wife about this, but whatever). This knowledge certainly transforms Sarah's feelings (and maybe the readers') toward Andrew. It also changes her life as she tries to pick up this incredible book project where he left off.

Andrew really tries to transform his study into a vehicle for helping people like Little Bee, whom he believes is dead, and whose death he thinks he's responsible for. Hanging himself in his study could be seen as a symbol of his loss of faith in books, in the written word, to make a positive, real difference in the world. Sarah's decision to continue Andrew's work could represent a renewed faith in all this writing business – research, storytelling, and words in general – as ways to help others.