White Teeth

Published 13 May 2017

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is a pleasantly dissonant story that extends through twenty-five years of two families’ assimilation in North London. The book fittingly narrates a multi-ethnic description of London in White Teeth, as any other kind of description would not have made sense. The story blends pathos and humour, all the while illustrating the dilemmas of immigrants and new generation immigrants as they face a new, and very different social system. One can easily notice certain qualities and negativities about different cultures while they are contrasted in a different culture. Middle and working-class British cultures are also lampooned through the characters of the Chalfens and Archie. Though the story moves through different time frames, it focuses mainly on the parents and children of the culturally and ethnically diverse families.

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This book also investigates the concepts of human relationship. Archie and Samad remain good friends in spite of the failed relationships of their families and culture. “the kind of friendship an Englishman makes on holiday, that he can make only on holiday. A friendship that crosses class and color, a friendship that takes as its basis physical proximity and survives because the Englishman assumes the physical proximity will not continue.”

Magid and Millat, though real brothers, do not like eachothers’ ways and never become affable as they had been seperated in their childhood at their father’s stance to keep at least one of them attached to his roots. Samad wants to preserve his cultural heritage in a city like London where he sees rotten culture and values. “You would get nowhere telling him… that the first sign of tooth decay is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums. Roots were what saved, the ropes one throws out to rescue drowning me, to Save their Souls.” He tells Magid, “You’ll thank me in the end. This country’s no good. We tear each other apart in this country.” While the fact is that the country where he has his roots is mired by violence. In another incidence, Magid and Millat catch Samad with Poppy; he notices “their white teeth biting into two waxy apples.” In this section, Samad represents Eve, biting into the forbidden fruit, named “Poppy” his sons’ teacher. In an image that amplifies Samad’s wrongdoing, Magid and Millat eat the apples, the very sign of original sin. Samad’s example prompts his children for similar transgression. Molars are the teeth that help chew the food to absorb it. The title of the section “Molars” implies that Magid and Millat, the two brothers are ‘digesting’ what their father does and learning from it.

FutureMouse is a middle character and pushes the story forward in White Teeth. FutureMouse’s life has been “programmed and designed” by Marcus Chalfen, but it escapes, apparently to map out its own life. In this sense FutureMouse has a similar drive as the other persons in the story, Magid, Millat and Irie. “No other roads, no missed opportunities, no parallel possibilities. No second-guessing, no what-ifs, no might-have-beens. Just certainty. Just certainty in its purest form.” All the characters appear to look for the new dimensions in the new century life and test those as framework for tranquility and contentment.

The book presents a sort of ideological break down, where post-sixties “Chalfenism” goes directly against the Islamism of Millat’s “KEVIN” group (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation), the apocalyptic Christian conservatism of “Bowdenism” and the vegan dreams of the animal rights movement. Smith ridicules evenly all her characters, upholding a wry, slightly world-weary point of view that spares none and delivers no meticulous solution, creating instead a sort of carnival of confusion, a delight in the sheer intricacy of cause and effect that evolve the characters in the book.

Smith presents three different expressions of fundamentalism, cautiously seperating them from “fundamentals.” In the first two, KEVIN – “an extremist faction dedicated to direct, often violent action, a splinter group frowned on by the rest of the Islamic community; popular with the sixteen-to-twenty-five age group; feared and ridiculed in the press.” and FATE, many members have concealed intentions. For example, Millat’s wants to be a gangster, and some members, such as Mo Hussein-Ishmael, join just to gain status. Similarly, Joshua and other members of FATE are involved just to get closer to either Jolie or Crispin. Thus though, they appear to be together for a declared cause, however all of them have different agendas. Smith has very intelligently exposed the reality of real life such organizations.

On the other hand, Hortense and Ryan Topps believe sincerely in being Jehovah’s Witnesses, and are happy living unspectacular, secluded lives with little excitement. They are real fundamentalists without any ulterior motives. Again Smith has shown the life styles of true believers. All of the types of fundamentalism in the book compare with the routine lives of Archie and Samad. The narrow views of all the fundamentalist groups are exposed at the Future mouse conference. Their only objective is to make others understand their viewpoint, and their participation with fundamentalism detaches them from each other: “Millat from Magid, Joshua from Marcus, and Ryan from developing a ‘normal’ relationship with a woman”.

In White Teeth, the writer brings up the age-old Nature/Nurture discussions, which are rooted in the biological sciences. Considering Smith’s handling of the twins, Magid and Millat, one might wrap up with that she prefers nurture to nature–that is, experience over the intrinsic. While the two brothers are genetically similar, they are otherwise absolutely different. Magid is academic and respectful, while Millat is neglected and defiant. Since they are alike twins, their differences must be ascribed to their experiences: Magid’s formative years in Bangladesh and Millat’s at home. Smith presents another similar dichotomy with Joyce and Marcus. Joyce is a “nurturer” and Marcus is a “believer in nature”. Joyce is an avid horticulturalist and mother; she thinks she can take an errant teenager such as Millat and change him as a well-behaved person just like nurturing any of the plants. She points Millat and Irie’s inadequacies due to missing of a strong father figure, implying that they were not nurtured properly. At the same time, she ignores her own son Joshua, and thus not cultivating him, she lets him grow “wild.”

Marcus symbolizes the nature side of the Nature/Nurture discussion. He dedicates his life to the proposal that “altering something’s nature alters it permanently”. He makes sure that the FutureMouse mouse cannot flight its nature, which is to build up the cancers he plans into its genes. Archie is always leaving his most important decisions up to toss of a coin: to kill or not to kill Perret, whether Magid and Millat should join up again, and whether or not he should commit suicide. Even when he had to shoot Perret and in turn is shot in his leg from his own gun by Perret, he exclaims, “For fuckssake, why did you do that? It’s tails. See? It’s tails. Looks. Tails. It was tails.” Since little motivates Archie to the point of taking a decision, relinquishing control of his life satisfies him. Thus, it is totally unexpected of him when he jumps in front of Millat’s gun in the book’s last moment. Archie’s indecisive attempts of suicide and his spontaneous choice to risk his life at the FutureMouse conference, shows how significantly Archie builds up throughout the book. And finally, instead of leaving his decisions to a coin, Archie gambles by trusting himself. It gives him lot of contentment to know that he has truly and resolutely saved a life.

Smith’s multicultural cast of personalities is a cross-section of today’s London. In the simplest sense, there is a blend of English, Jamaicans, and Bengalis. However, Smith is too practical in her assessments of human character to leave the issue of race and ethnicity so clear-cut. Her actors are struck up between different cultures. When Clara is a teenager she, like Millat, is fascinated by her parents’ tradition. When she strays from her legacy the first time, her teeth are broken. When she wanders a second time by marrying Archie, Hortense disowns her. Millat faces similar fate when he strays from Samad’s preparation for him to have traditional, Bengali views. Samad calls him a “good-for-nothing” while adoring Magid. As a reverse action, Millat becomes a militant fundamentalist. “He’s a Pande deep down. And there’s mutiny in his blood.” Incongruously, he draws inspiration from a movie the Godfather. Therefore, rather than following Pande, he emulates Pacino. While Samad himself is a hypocrite when he comments, “To the pure all things are pure.” Magid is also wedged between cultures, but strays in the opposite direction. He finds motivation in the worldly, embracing genetic engineering as the new form of God.

Irie is trapped between cultures in her very genetics, as she is Jamaican as well as English. Unlike Samad, Archie and Clara don’t want to force their child to embrace a certain cultural heritage. As said in the book “A legacy is not something you can give or take by choice, and there are no certainties in this sticky business of inheritance.” Other demonstrations of mixed ethnicity in the novel include Samad’s restaurant, where the food is so anglicized it is no longer Indian, and O’Connell’s, an Irish pub run by a Muslim from Middle East, with a manifestly American nickname.

Today, Britain, and especially London, is a professed cultural collage. However, as British MP Diane Abbott says, “For millions of people all over the world, Britain is the land of tradition, the Royal Family, Beefeaters, Bobbies on the beat and, above all, white people. In much of Middle America, it comes as a shock for them to hear that there any black people in Britain at all.” By including English, Bengalis, and Jamaicans in her descriptions, Smith presents a true account of British diversity.

Furthermore, Smith is right to recognize the racial tensions that originate from cross-cultural and cross-class relationships, inclduing Alsana’s lack of trust for the Chalfens, Samad’s aspirations to raise his sons in Bangladesh, and Joyce Chalfen’s supposition that Irie cannot have inherited her understanding from her working-class parents. Abbott might even say that by writing White Teeth, Smith contributes in the movement to make Britain, “…a more open, more multi-racial society than ever before. And one where different races and cultural influences are beginning to be positively acknowledged and given equal respect.” Infact, at the end of the book, ethnicity, cultures, class, and customs mix homogeneously. Irie’s daughter, symbol of the candid future, is an afro-Carribean, a white English, and Bengali. White Teeth forces the reader to question their viewpoints and judgments on “racial discrimination, miscegenation, gender roles, and history”.


  • Smith Zadie(2000); White Teeth; Hamish Hamilton; England
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