White Teeth by Zadie Smith is her first novel which became a best seller and brought her many laurels and awards. It was published in 2000. Zadie Smith was born on October 25th 1975. She is a contemporary British novelist, short-story writer and an essayist. This year (2018) she published her collection of essays. She is a professor in Creative Writing at the New York University since September 2010. Her first book traces the lives of two friends from the 1975 to 1999 with flashbacks to Second World War as well.
The novel starts on New Year’s Eve of 1975 with Archie Jones trying to take his life by gassing up in the car. This is not successful as he is stopped by Mo Hussein-Ishmael. The man who was thinking of taking his life a minute ago, as soon as he is saved thinks he was destined to live and embraces life with full gusto. On the same night he meets Clara Bowden. Archie is around 45 and Clara Bowden is much younger and a Jamaican. Her mother Hortense Bowden was a fanatical Jehova’s Witness. She was not very approving of this affair but Clara to escape from her mother marries Archie.
Samad is Archie’s friend from World War II times. He marries Alsana Begum, also at the same time as Archie. Alsana is also much younger than Samad and it was an arranged marriage. Their marriage is not a very happy one but both manage to hold on to it. There is a lot of ranting between the two and it is about their jobs and about their relationship. Both Alsana and Clara get pregnant at the same time. Archie and Clara have a daughter and they name her Irie. Samad and Alsana have twins, boys, and are Magid and Millat. They grow up together and Irie is in love with Millat who grows to be a stud. But unfortunately for Irie he does not return her love and it remains unrequited.
When the children are around ten years old Samad has an affair with their music teacher which is a shocker for Samad himself. He is one who believed in being a true Muslim with moral values. This split in him takes him on guilt ride and he seeks solution in his children. He wants them to grow with proper Islam background and wants to send them home, Bangladesh. He knew Alsana would not agree to this, so finally he decides to send one and the lot falls on Magid. Even this he does without seeking permission of Alsana. She knows only after he leaves. From then on the twins lead different lives but what they finally become is really strange.
At this point of the novel a third family makes its entry, the family of the Chalfen. Joshua Chalfen, Irie and Millat are friends and they are caught smoking marijuana. As a punishment Millat and Irie had to visit the Chalfen family to learn Science and Math. So Millat and Irie visit the Chalfen household. Joshua’s father is a geneticist and his mother is a botanist. There is so much of Science in that household and Millat and Irie find it very different from their households. Their father always revelled in the past while there were no such stories in the Chalfen family which Millat and Irie enjoyed. But as expected, Joshua was fed up with family.
With the entry of this family into the story there are some small turns to the plot. Before that we should trace the lives of the children. Irie is influenced by Marcus Chalfen , the father, and plans to become a dentist. Magid, living in Bangladesh becomes more British than Millat. Millat has a great weakness for women but he is also attracted to a fundamental Islamic group. What Samad wanted of Magid was being revealed in Millat but in a more powerful way. Marcus Chalfen gets to know of Magid’s academic interest and scientific temperament and brings him back to England; he bears the travel cost of Magid. Millat and Magid refuse to live under the same roof as there are ideological differences.
Marcus is working on FutureMouse which is a project on genetically engineered mouse. Magid is there with Marcus completely supporting the project. Millat gets recruited into the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN). He protests against Future Mouse stating that they were interfering with the will of God. Hortense also feels the same only it was for a different God. Joshua has become an animal activist and is a member of an organisation called FATE. He too protests against Future Mouse as they were against testing of animals in the labs. So there are two organisations and one person teamed up against Future Mouse while Archie, Samad, Clara and Alsana, without any belief to hold on to, support Magid and his work for Marcus.
In the end is the presentation of Future Mouse which is about to be sabotaged by FATE and KEVIN. Millat had his own plans of shooting Marcus or his mentor Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret . Now this doctor was to be killed by Archie at the request of Samad way back in the 1940’s. Archie did not kill him. And on this day that Samad realises that his friend for forty years had lied to him about killing Dr. Perret. Once again Archie is back in action to save the doctor. Millat and Magid are given 400 hours of community service. Irie and Joshua fall in love but she is already pregnant and we do not know the father as Irie has sex with both Magid and Millat on the same day within a gap of few minutes. The story ends with people watching a bleeding man and an escaping mouse.
Themes in White Teeth
There are a few themes that come through in this novel by Zadie Smith. The themes are seen all through the story. Some of it will be examined here.
PAST OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS AND HISTORY
The story starts and extends from the lives of two people, Archie and Samad. They were a part of the Second World War and they have many experiences to share. They miss no opportunity to keep talking of their past which sometimes irks others in the family. One reason that their children are taken up by the Chalfen family is that the Chalfen family do not talk about the past. The past keeps flitting into the present in many chapters. Dr. Perret is a chapter from the past who Archie was supposed to have killed. Samad thinks that Archie had done his job. Only in the end of the novel Samad realises that he did not kill Dr. Perret. Till the last moment the past suddenly in thrown in.
Friendship as a theme is very prominent. Archie and Samad are friends for years and there is no occasion where their friendship sours. They marry at the same time and have children at the same time. The children are good friends though there is a love element. The children and Joshua of the Chalfen family also become friends and their friendship is maintained till each of them find a different calling in life. When Millat and Joshua are found smoking marijuana, Irie comes to warn them and then she is also considered to be a part of this group and is punished. Though the children are not the best of friends, Archie and Samad remain good friends till the very end.
The characters in the novel are in search of an identity and a sense of belongingness. The story opens with Archie attempting suicide as he feels there is no place or value for him. Only when he meets Clara he decides to live again. Alsana and Samad have jobs that they don’t identify with, rather they hate it. Irie the daughter of Archie and Clara wants to go into hard science but Marcus thinks she will become a good dentist. There is a clash in her thought process and then finally decides to go with the decision of Marcus Chalfen. Magid is sent to Bangladesh to become a true Muslim but he becomes an atheist while Millat who is brought in America becomes a Islamic fundamentalist. There is a search for an identity and the younger generation finally understand their calling,
THEME OF ETHNICITY AND RACE
This novel is not really about race and ethnicity but there is a mention of it. Hortense is not happy that Clara is marrying a white man. More than the religious differences it is the colour difference that Hortense mentions. In the case of Alsana and Samad, they have their roots strong and even a mention that they are Indians is not well taken. They want to be known as Bangladeshis. Samad sends Magid to Bangladesh to preserve their ethnicity. That it does not happen is the story. Other than these few instances race and ethnicity does not figure much in the plot.
RELIGION AND TRADITION
In the White Teeth we have religions and believers and non-believers of religion. We have the Iqbals who are Muslims and staunch ones at that. The Joneses are Christians but almost non-believers. Clara’s mother is a member of Jehovah’s Witness but Clara is not influenced by her mother. Her friend from school Ryan gets completely influenced by the ideas of this group of Christianity. Millat the son of Samad becomes a staunch Muslim after going through a very flirtatious life. For him religion tells more about a person rather than a person’s beliefs or how he behaves. Then there is the Chalfens who also have religion but it is the religion of Science.
The importance on tradition is seen mostly with Samad. He wants to be a true Muslim and wants his children also to grow up like that. He fears that they might lose their roots in Europe when he finds that against his ideals he has an affair with a music teacher. On one hand he wants to be a staunch Muslim, on the other he cannot let go of his love for the music teacher, an extra-marital affair. This breach results in him sending one son away to his homeland to be grow up as a true Muslim. We know that Magid who goes to Bangladesh comes back with a scientific temperament while the boy who stayed back in Europe becomes a staunch Muslim, to put it mildly.
Other than this some little aspects of class and society is seen as a theme. The Iqbals and Joneses are working class people while the Chalfens was truly academic and middle class. There is no discrimination or looking down upon the people of the working class. Also in the end we see that there is no class as such and one comes to the rescue of the other.
The setting of the story is in London. But there are many flashbacks to India, continental Europe, Jamaica and old-time London. But the story when it is not in its flashbacks it is in London during the period between 1974 and 1992. To be more specific it is in the Willesden and Killburn the north London areas. These areas are populated with working class people. World War II and its setting is also mentioned in the story.
The story is narrated in third person and the narrator knows everything and is like an omnipresent character. There are jumps to different places and to different periods of time and the narrator is present at all times. Family Drama is seen in abundance. In fact the genre of this story can be said to be family drama. There are three generations but mostly two coming of age. Hortense belongs to the first generation, Clara and Archie the second one and the Irie being the third and it is the last generation who are really struggling between their ethnicity and their modern outlook.
The tone of the narration is cynical and has elements of irony giving it a touch of humour. Right at the beginning where Archie is attempting suicide, one would expect a serious description but not so. And this sets the tone for the rest of the story. After filling his car with gas he tries to recollect his life. This is what he thinks his life was. “It turned out to be a short unedifying viewing experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen's Speech.”
There is chaos in the writing style and this is what makes the story interesting and fun. In chapter the 44th paragraph is a long one and has many capital letters. The sentences are long and the language is truly informal. There is irony and wit in the writing and the reading gives the readers enough to laugh.
The characters in the novel are not overpowering. Archie is so boring that his first wife leaves him. Samad is so very traditional yet crosses his moral lines. The women Clara and Alsana have nothing much to say to make an impact. Hortense is loud but has only limited influence. The Chalfens also have limited influence. The children of the Iqbals and Joneses are a little prominent but there is no one protagonist. Millat is one who makes his presence felt more with his attitude and behaviour. This novel is for some light reading and there is no moralising or no lesson taught.