White Teeth is a complex and multilayered novel, with a wide cast of characters and a twisting plot ranging over many years and several continents. The story follows the fortunes of two best friends, World War II buddies Archie Jones, a white working-class man married for the second time to the much younger Clara, a Jamaican woman, and Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi who works at an Indian restaurant in London and marries the much younger Alsana. Naturally enough, their children Irie Jones and the twin Iqbal brothers, Magid and Millat, are friends in multicultural present-day north London. Samad, concerned that his boys are losing their culture, sends one brother, Magid, home to be raised by relatives in Chittagong. Irie and Millat, caught smoking marijuana in the schoolyard, agree to be tutored by classmate Joshua Chalfen in order to avoid harsher consequences. The Jewish-Catholic-atheist Chalfens are a stereotypical white liberal family, delighted to welcome such multicultural diversity into their home. Irie Jones has an unrequited desire for Millat; Joshua Chalfen has an unrequited love for Irie.
Marcus Chalfen is a genetic engineer who is working on a project called FutureMouse. Every event in FutureMouse’s life will be programmed and predictable; the mouse is to live for exactly seven years, from 1993 to December 31, 1999, the eve of the new millennium. The many threads of the novel come together at an event where FutureMouse will be introduced to the...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Archibald “Archie” Jones is trying to commit suicide. He is inhaling carbon monoxide from the exhaust fumes of his running car, which is parked in Willesden Green, a multiracial, multicultural, and mostly immigrant neighborhood of London. Suicide has been Archie’s New Year’s resolution since the miserable failure of his childless marriage to an insane Italian woman. As with most decisions in his life, he had tossed a coin to determine whether or not he should kill himself. A local butcher saves Archie’s life when he sees him in his car, which is parked in the shop’s loading area. Archie readily treats this as a good sign that his life has not yet given up on him.
Reinvigorated by his second chance, Archie, a forty-seven-year-old World War II veteran, attends a random New Year’s Day party, or rather, whatever is left of the celebration from the night before. At the party he encounters Clara Bowden, a nineteen-year-old Caribbean and a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness. Archie and Clara marry just six weeks later.
Born to a highly religious Jamaican mother, Clara immediately sees her marriage to a native-born Englishman as an escape from the old, convoluted ways of her family. Her mother, Hortense Bowden, was born during a 1907 earthquake in her native Kingston, Jamaica. Hortense’s mother, Ambrosia, was fourteen years old at the time of Hortense’s birth. Ambrosia had become pregnant by a white English captain stationed in Jamaica. Because of the earthquake, Hortense had considered her own birth a miracle, and for the rest of her life she would be a religious zealot. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Hortense excitingly continues to anticipate the end of the world because she is firmly convinced that she must be one of the chosen people.
Samad Iqbal, Archie’s best friend for nearly thirty years, had encouraged Archie’s second marriage to a younger woman, such as Clara. Samad is married, by arrangement, to Alsana Begum, a woman nineteen years younger. Samad and Archie had met long before the Iqbals’ immigration from Bangladesh. Having served together at the end of World War II, the two men feel united in that experience, despite neither having done any fighting. They continue to retell their memories of the war at their regular spot, O’Connell’s Diner, where they go for drinks, omelets, and discussion.
Clara and Alsana become pregnant nearly at the same time and become close, albeit somewhat slowly and, for Alsana, reluctantly. Clara gives birth to Irie, while the Iqbals welcome twin boys: Magid, the older son by two minutes, and Millat. The three children grow up together and, as the first British-born children of immigrants, go through a process of cultural assimilation much different from that of their parents.
Samad gets obsessively involved with his children’s education, attending all parent meetings at their school and promoting all Muslim holidays for the sake of multiculturalism. An affair with...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Childs, Peter. “Zadie Smith: Searching for the Inescapable.” In Contemporary Novelists: British Fiction Since 1970. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Childs offers accessible analyses of twelve late twentieth century and early twenty-first century British novelists. Includes a chapter on Smith’s White Teeth.
Dawson, Ashley. Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. This study of the beginnings of a postcolonial and multiracial Great Britain includes the chapter “Genetics, Biotechnology, and the Future of ’Race’ in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.”
Head, Dominic. “Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: Multiculturalism for the Millennium.” In Contemporary British Fiction, edited by Richard J. Lane, Rod Mengham, and Philip Tew. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. Focuses on the multicultural aspects of White Teeth. Part of a collection surveying the reception and literary status of contemporary British fiction.
Nasta, Susheila, ed. Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk. New York: Routledge, 2004. In an interview conducted by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Smith defends and critiques her own novel and confronts and debates the interviewer.
Rozzo, Mark. “Who’s English Now?” Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 7, 2000. In this brief review, the author discusses the themes of race, immigration, assimilation, and nationalism. He praises the young writer for her poetry and insight.
Squires, Claire. Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” New York: Continuum International, 2002. A reader’s guide to the history, plot, and reception of White Teeth. Includes a biography of Smith.
Walters, Tracey L., ed. Zadie Smith: Critical Essays. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. A comprehensive collection of essays solely devoted to Smith. Section 1 discusses postcolonial and postmodernist readings of Smith. Section 2 discusses racial identity and race mixing in Smith’s work.
Wood, James. “Human, All Too Human.” The New Republic, August 30, 2001. In this often-referenced review of White Teeth, Wood coins a new genre for the novel, “hysterical realism.” An intense critique of the work.