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|27 January 2000|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|LC Class||PR6069.M59 W47 2000b|
White Teeth is a 2000 novel by the British author Zadie Smith. It focuses on the later lives of two wartime friends—the Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and the Englishman Archie Jones—and their families in London. The novel is centred around Britain's relationships with people from formerly colonised countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.
The book won multiple honours, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Major themes
- 3 Major characters
- 4 Television adaptation
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
On New Year's Day 1975, an Englishman named Archie Jones, a 47-year-old man whose disturbed Italian wife has just walked out on him, is attempting to commit suicide by gassing himself in his car when a chance interruption causes him to change his mind. Filled with a fresh enthusiasm for life, Archie flips a coin and then finds his way into the aftermath of a New Year's Eve party. There he meets the much-younger Clara Bowden, a Jamaican woman whose mother, Hortense, is a devout Jehovah's Witness. Clara had been interested in the unattractive, anti-social Ryan Topps, but their relationship falls apart after Ryan becomes a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Archie and Clara are soon married and have a daughter, Irie, who grows up to be intelligent but with low self-confidence.
Also living in Willesden, North-West London, is Archie's best friend Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh; the two men spend much of their time at the O'Connell's pub. Archie and Samad met in 1945 when they were part of a tank crew inching through Europe in the final days of World War II, though they missed out on the action. Following the war, Samad emigrated to Britain and married Alsana Iqbal, née Alsana Begum, or "Miss Alsana," in a traditional arranged marriage. Samad is a downtrodden waiter in a West End curry house, and is obsessed by the history of his supposed but unlikely great-grandfather, Mangal Pandey, a Hindu soldier from Uttar Pradesh, not Bengal, who is famous for firing the first shot of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (though he missed). Samad and Alsana have twin boys, Magid and Millat, who are the same age as Irie. Samad in particular finds it difficult to maintain his devotion to Islam in an English life; he is continually tormented by what he sees as the effects of this cultural conflict upon his own moral character – his Muslim values are corrupted by his masturbation, drinking, and his affair with his children's music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. In an attempt to preserve his traditional beliefs, he sends 10-year-old Magid to Bangladesh in the hope that he will grow up properly under the teachings of Islam. From then on, the lives of the two boys follow very different paths. To Samad's fury, Magid becomes an Anglicised atheist and devotes his life to science. Millat, meanwhile, pursues a rebellious path of womanising and drinking – as well as harbouring a love of mob movies such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Angry at his people's marginalisation in English society Millat demonstrates against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and eventually pledges himself to a militant Muslim fundamentalist brotherhood known as "Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation" (KEVIN).
The lives of the Joneses and Iqbals intertwine with that of the white, middle-class Chalfens, a Jewish-Catholic family of Cambridge educated intellectuals who typify a distinctive strain of North London liberal trendiness. The father, Marcus Chalfen, is a university lecturer and geneticist working on a controversial 'FutureMouse' project in which he introduces chemical carcinogens into the body of a mouse and is thus able to observe the progression of a tumour in living tissue. By re-engineering the actual genome and watching cancers progress at pre-determined times, Marcus believes he is eliminating the random. The mother, Joyce Chalfen, is a horticulturist and part-time housewife with an often entirely misguided desire to mother and 'heal' Millat as if he were one of her plants. To some extent, the Chalfen family provides a safe haven as they (believe themselves to) accept and understand the turbulent lives of Irie, Magid, and Millat. However, this sympathy comes at the expense of their own son, Joshua, whose difficulties are ignored by his parents. Originally a well-moulded "Chalfenist", Joshua later rebels against his father and his background by joining the radical animal rights group "Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation" (FATE). Meanwhile, after his return from Bangladesh, Magid works as Marcus's research assistant on the FutureMouse project, while Millat becomes further involved in KEVIN. Irie, who has been working for Marcus, briefly succeeds in her long-hidden attraction to Millat but is rejected under his KEVIN-inspired beliefs. Irie believes that Millat cannot love her, for he has always been "the second son" both symbolically and literally; Millat was born two minutes after Magid. Irie makes Magid the "second son" for a change by sleeping with him right after her romantic encounter of Millat. This causes her to become pregnant, and she is left unsure of the father of her child, as the brothers are identical twins.
The strands of the narrative grow closer as Millat and KEVIN, Joshua and FATE, and Clara's mother Hortense and the Jehovah's Witnesses all plan to demonstrate their opposition to Marcus's FutureMouse – which they view as an evil interference with their own beliefs – at its exhibition on New Year's Eve 1992. At the Perret Institute, Hortense and the other Jehovah's Witnesses sing loudly in the hallway. Samad goes out to hush them, but when he arrives, doesn't have the heart to make them stop. When he returns, it suddenly strikes him that the founder of the Perret Institute and the oldest scientist on Marcus Chalfen's panel is Dr Perret, the Nazi he captured during World War II. Enraged that Archie did not kill him all those years ago, Samad runs over and begins cursing Archie. Just then, Millat advances on the table of scientists with a gun. Without thinking, Archie jumps in front of him and takes a bullet in the thigh. As he falls, he knocks over the mouse's glass cage, and it escapes.
At the novel's end, the narrator presents us with different "end games" in the style of television. Magid and Millat both serve community service for Millat's crime, since witnesses identify both as the culprit. Joshua and Irie end up together and join Hortense in Jamaica in the year 2000. Mickey opens up the previously men-only O'Connell's pub to women, and Archie and Samad finally invite their wives along with them.
The story mixes pathos and humour while illustrating the dilemmas of immigrants and their offspring as they are confronted by a new, different society. Contrasted in the setting of a different host culture, disparate aspects of non-British cultures emerge. Middle-and working-class British cultures are also satirised through the characters of the Chalfens and Archie.
As part of the characters' experience as immigrants, they are confronted with conflicts between assimilating and preserving their cultures. The novel depicts the lives of a wide range of backgrounds, including Afro-Caribbean, Muslim, and Jewish. In keeping with Smith's epigraph, “what is past is prologue,” the characters and their various cultural backgrounds show the complexity involved in immigration and replanting one’s roots. For instance, first-generation characters are confronted with conflicting pressures both to assimilate into British society and to preserve their native cultures. Consequently, many find it difficult to claim a place in their new surroundings. Alsana, Samad, and Clara all face complications when assimilating into British culture and as a result experience a continued sense of ‘unrootedness’: they are unable to replant their roots in a new territory.
Smith uses second-generation characters Irie, Magid, and Millat to demonstrate how the consequences of immigration are augmented over time. These characters do not feel any more strongly-connected to Britain despite being born there. To the contrary, Irie, Magid, and Millat are greatly affected by their parents’ unrootedness while also experiencing difficulty themselves in finding a place in British society. Their assimilation process is in some ways more complex because they are further removed from their native cultures. While migration makes lineage and culture more difficult to trace, each character also demonstrates the theme that knowing one’s roots is not always liberating. For instance, Samad feels that English life is not conducive to an adequate Muslim upbringing. He attempts to preserve Magid’s faith by sending him to Bangladesh, yet Magid grows up to be a believer in science instead of faith. On the other hand, Millat, despite staying in London, becomes involved with the militant Muslim group KEVIN.
As a second-generation immigrant, Clara introduces her parents to new facets of British culture and her peers to her Jamaican heritage. This interchange is shown by Clara and Ryan’s relationship and Ryan’s eventual bond with Clara’s mother, Hortense Bowden. Ryan is the catalyst for Clara’s diversion from her background, while Clara in turn serves as the medium for Hortense’s introduction to whiteness and Ryan’s to blackness (as well as his conversion to a new religion). Similarly, Samad meets his mistress Poppy Burt-Jones, the twins’ teacher, when he becomes involved in a PTA battle to incorporate Muslim holidays into the elementary school curriculum. The actions of these second-generation immigrants reflect the idea that the past and present are in dialogue, as their present lives disrupt their parents' connection to the past.
Irie is conflicted about her own roots. She starts saving money to travel to Jamaica with her grandmother while simultaneously hating her kinky Afro hair and her Jamaican curves. She dreams of a future when roots will not matter; when she gets pregnant and realizes she'll never know who the father is, she is almost happy her daughter will not have to deal with the problem of roots. Roots are a pervasive theme in White Teeth. Samad clutches onto them, viewing them as sacred and necessary. He worries that he or his family will lose their roots. Samad once says to Archie regarding his children losing their roots, "People call it assimilation when it is nothing but corruption. Corruption!" Archie doesn't have any roots, and Clara tries to escape hers. She leaves her mother and Jehovah's Witness past behind, but can never truly purge it. "But how fragile is Clara's atheism! Like one of those tiny glass doves Hortense keeps in the living-room cabinet—a breath would knock it over." Religion is a large part of both the Bowdens' and the Iqbals' roots. Hortense is preoccupied with continuing the Jehovah's Witness tradition, and Samad worries about losing his Muslim faith.
Multiple narrative viewpoints
Smith's ensemble cast of characters allows her to approach the idea of multiculturalism from multiple viewpoints. For instance, readers witness both Alsana's and Clara's first-hand encounters with the prejudices of London society. On the other hand, readers also witness Alsana subscribing similar prejudices to Clara: “Black people are often friendly, thought Alsana, smiling at Clara, and adding this subconsciously to the short ‘pro’ side of the pro and con list she had on the black girl. From every minority she disliked, Alsana liked to single out one specimen for spiritual forgiveness." The white, Jamaican, Bengali, and interracial main characters of White Teeth allow the reader to examine the ecosystem of one community from many diverse perspectives. Smith commented, "I just wanted to show that there are communities that function well. There's sadness for the way tradition is fading away but I wanted to show people making an effort to understand each other, despite their cultural differences."
The leitmotif of teeth and in particular the white teeth of the title play a recurring role throughout. While the families in the book have numerous things that set them apart, white teeth is an overarching quality. No matter the colour of their skin, the religion they follow, or the country they come from—they have white teeth. Although Clara loses her teeth in a moped accident early on in the narrative, and they are replaced by a set of false ones, the existence of which is only discovered by her daughter when she is a teenager. Irie's decision (if it can be classed as her own decision) to become a dentist is another recurrence of this theme. Irie, by becoming a dentist and looking after the teeth of her community, shows that she is trying to look after a unifying, not differentiating, element in society. The theme of attempting to unify elements of different cultures in a new host culture is typical of literature by and about the offspring of immigrants in different cultures.
Referencing the theme of “teeth” in the novel, Smith uses the term "root canal" as a metaphor to show the examination of a character’s history. For instance, when Samad tries to send Magid back to his Bengali roots, the narrator uses the root canal metaphor to comment on the action: “To Samad,... roots were roots and roots were good. You would get nowhere telling him that the first sign of tooth decay is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums." Recovering the teeth’s root, like in a "root canal," does not automatically save the tooth; similarly, Samad does not prevent Magid from conforming to English culture by sending him back to his roots in Bangladesh.
Most of the critical relationships in the lives of the main characters are ones developed by chance. Archie and Clara Jones stumble upon one another at a New Year's Eve party. They are drawn together by “accidental” similarity, as both Clara and Archie have just survived an apocalypse (Archie a suicide attempt and Clara – an escaping Jehova's witness – the predicted Armageddon of January 1, 1975). Samad's failed attempts to control his sons' destinies only pushes his sons further away, as Millat becomes a rebel and Magid "more English than the English." Millat and Magid are subjects of constant coincidence and chance: for instance, both brothers mysteriously break their noses at the same time. Ultimately Samad, Millat and Magid have no control over their destinies. Archie too relies heavily on chance, making major life decisions by flipping a coin. Even Clara and Ryan are bound together by chance: they are united by their difference, both being the only students at St. Jude’s that are “neither Irish nor Roman Catholic.”
The way characters of different races see each other is a major theme in the novel, and intertwines with the cultures and countries of origins of many of the characters. Many characters demonstrate bias based on skin colour, of which they are seemingly unaware: Archie, although marrying a black woman and being best friends with a Bangladeshi man, is quoted as thinking of Clara as 'not that kind of black', and Samad and Alsana as 'not those kinds of Indians' (and Alsana also believes everybody who is not a Bengali Muslim is worse, and that she needs to 'save' some of them, for example Clara); the idea that Indian children are often more reserved and calm in class, and that Millat is odd for acting differently to this, is repeated by several white women. It is implied Joyce Chalfen thinks Alsana is a bad mother because she is less educated, and from a more backwards country, and doesn't have the trust in psychology that Joyce does. The Iqbals and their Bengali friends and relatives are often and variously referred to as 'Indians', 'Pakis', and so on. Clara's mother disowns her for marrying a white man because she doesn't want Clara's children to lose their dark skin and Jamaican heritage, even though her own father was white. Irie goes to a hair salon which serves black women by giving them straighter and less 'black' hair, because she is desperate to get rid of her own afro.
The complex relationship of race to culture, religion, family, and immigrant status is often a feature of the novel: the Chalfens are ethnically Jewish but don't appear to be religious at all, instead following the principles of "Chalfenism". Magid and Millat, although they are both from the same Bengali Muslim household, end up radically different - Millat, despite being brought up in the West in England, becomes a fundamentalist Muslim, and Magid, sent away to Bangladesh to learn about his family's culture, is educated at an English university and supports Marcus' eugenic experiments. Alsana, a strict Muslim, earns money by sewing lingerie, the function of which is at odds with her morals. The Bowdens, Clara's family, are Jehovah's Witnesses, a religion taught to Clara's grandmother by a white Scottish woman.
Characters of differing races often have more in common than characters of the same race. For instance, Archie and Samad remain best friends despite their different cultural backgrounds, while twin brothers Magid and Millat never approve of each other's lives and Alsana and Samad never have a fully happy marriage.
Second-generation children Irie, Millat and Magid struggle to find a way to fit into mainstream white British society. Irie chemically straightens her hair and desires a thin white body. Millat initially refuses to follow Islam, his father's religion. The children are drawn to the Chalfens, who physically manifest their idea of proper British whiteness. They align themselves with the Chalfens despite numerous hints that something is not quite right with the family, especially the overbearing mother Joyce. The quest for assimilation eventually alienates the children from their parents. In the end, Irie and Millat show signs of rebuking assimilation and attempt to navigate their place in the world as individuals.
Fundamentalism is shown in three contrasting manifestations throughout the second half of the novel: KEVIN, FATE, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Various characters who join FATE and KEVIN are drawn by the sense of security inherent to fundamentalism or the excitement of extreme action, rather than the doctrine of the groups themselves. The members of these groups often have ulterior motives: Millat's desire to participate in hip-hop or mafia culture was fulfilled by his membership in KEVIN; Mo Hussein-Ishmael joined KEVIN for status; Joshua is less concerned about eliminating animal cruelty than rebelling against his father, Marcus, and being close to the attractive Joely. To become fundamentalists, Millat and Joshua both had to reject an element of their roots—their fathers. Conversely, the Jehovah’s Witness characters do not exhibit any ulterior motives: Hortense and Ryan Topps are committed to the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and avidly promote its message to the public by door-to-door canvassing, leafleting, and hymn-singing in public demonstrations.
Alfred Archibald Jones
Archie is mediocre and indecisive, preferring to make his most important decisions with the flip of a coin. Archie's ex-wife is Ophelia Diagilo, whom he supposedly drove insane with his mediocrity. He later marries Clara, a Jamaican woman less than half his age, with whom he has a daughter, Irie. Archie's best friend is Samad Iqbal. The two men served together in World War II in the British Army and frequently visit O'Connell's pub.
Samad Miah Iqbal
Archie's best friend, a middle-aged World War II veteran with a crippled right hand. Samad was born in Bangladesh and met Archie when they were soldiers in Eastern Europe. He works as a waiter at an Indian restaurant, where he receives few tips. His wife is Alsana Begum, and his twin sons are Magid and Millat. More than anything, Samad wants his sons to grow into religious, traditional Bengali Muslim men. To ensure this, he goes to great lengths, even sending Magid to be raised in Bangladesh (for all intents and purposes, this was a kidnapping). Samad is religious and outspoken, relishes control although he is a staunch believer in destiny, and fancies himself to be more worldly and intellectual than others give him credit for. Samad's plot revolves around the difficulties he finds adapting to British culture while still holding on to his Bangladeshi heritage, and also raising his second-generation immigrant sons while they become a product of cross-cultural identity.
Clara Jones, née Bowden, was an awkward, unpopular Jehovah's Witness who spent her adolescence canvassing door-to-door. When she meets the equally unappealing Ryan Topps, she abandons her religion and takes up his rebellious ways, though Ryan becomes a staunch Jehovah's Witness himself. When Ryan and Clara crash into a tree on Ryan's scooter, Clara's top teeth are knocked out. She meets Archie Jones and marries him, even though she finds him unimpressive and he is more than twice her age. Archie and Clara have a daughter named Irie.
Alsana Iqbal, née Begum, is the young wife of Samad Iqbal, to whom she was promised before her birth. They have twin sons, Magid and Millat. To help pay bills, she sews clothing on her home sewing machine for an S&M shop called Domination in Soho. Although charismatic and judgemental by nature, she thinks marriage is best handled with silence. However, she has a volcanic temper and generally wins fights with Samad by injuring him.
Irie Ambrosia Jones
Irie – whose name means "OK, cool, peaceful" in Patois – is the daughter of Clara and Archie Jones. Irie has been friends with Magid and Millat Iqbal since birth. After struggling with her sexuality and racial identity, Irie finds answers in her grandmother, Hortense Bowden. She resolves to go into the field of dentistry and, despite her best efforts to prevent it, ends up with Joshua Chalfen. Having slept with both Magid and Millat, Irie gives birth to a daughter whose father can never be known, as the twins have exactly the same DNA.
Millat Zulfikar Iqbal
Millat, born 2 minutes later than his twin brother Magid, is the younger son of Samad and Alsana. After Magid is sent to Bangladesh, Millat comes into his own as a trouble-making, pot-smoking, womanising rebel. However, Millat eventually rejects this lifestyle in favour of fundamentalist Islam, becoming a major driving force of KEVIN. At the FutureMouse conference, he tries to shoot Dr Perret, but instead shoots Archie in the thigh. Millat may or may not be the father of Irie's baby.
Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal
Magid is the elder son of Samad and Alsana, and twin brother of Millat. Magid is intellectually precocious and insists on dressing and acting like an adult, even at a very young age. Magid resents his heritage and wishes he and his family were more "normal" and English. Samad essentially kidnaps Magid and sends him to be raised traditionally in Bangladesh. To his father's unhappiness, Magid becomes a suit-wearing, secular, English intellectual. When he finally returns to London, he joins Marcus Chalfen's FutureMouse programme. Magid is fascinated by the certainty of fate genetic engineering offers, and by having the power to choose another creature's path, as his was chosen for him. Magid may or may not be the father of Irie's baby.
Marcus Chalfen is a Jewish genetic engineer and husband of Joyce Chalfen. His controversial FutureMouse experiment involves genetically altering a mouse so that it develops cancers at specific times and sites. Marcus loses interest in mentoring Irie when he begins corresponding with Magid.
Joyce is a horticulturalist, writer, and the wife of Marcus Chalfen. She has four sons, all of whom adore her fiercely. Joyce is a natural nurturer and constantly feels the need to care for things and people. From the moment they meet, Millat entrances Joyce, and she feels the need to mother him and pander to his needs.
Joshua is the son of Joyce and Marcus Chalfen. Originally interested in his studies at Glenard Oak School, Joshua rebels against the Chalfens (particularly his father) by joining the animal-rights groups FATE. Joshua has a long-standing crush on Irie and, later, on Joely. He stays in FATE largely as an excuse to remain close to her.
A four-part television adaptation of the novel was made and broadcast on Channel 4 in 2002. It was directed by Julian Jarrold, starring Om Puri as Samad and Phil Davis as Archie. Each episode focuses on a major male character as he encounters a turning point in his life: "The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones", "The Temptation of Samad Iqbal", "The Trouble With Millat", and "The Return of Magid Iqbal".
- Squires, Claire. White Teeth – A Reader's Guide (New York: Continuum International, 2002).
- Bentley, Nick. "Zadie Smith, White Teeth", 2008. In Contemporary British Fiction, pp. 52–61. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-2420-1.
- White Teeth on IMDb
- Zadie Smith discusses White Teeth on the BBC World Book Club
- Official website for film adaptation (with trailer)
- Description of White Teeth at Random House.
- Excerpted portion from White Teeth
- White Teeth. Interview with Zadie Smith
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Exploration of the cultural implications of Zadie Smith's debut novel by Stephen Moss.
- Review of White Teeth in The Guardian, by John Mullan.
- Article in The Guardian on the TV adaptation of White Teeth