How would you describe the role of mothers in the novel White Teeth? How does maternal lineage inform identity in the novel?
One of the themes of the novel is that mothers influence our lives, especially in the case of girls.
What a mother is makes her daughter what she is, and in turn makes her a certain kind of mother to her own daughter. A perfect example of this is Clara’s mother Hortense, who was born during an earthquake. This influenced her daughter Clara’s upbringing, because she considered her birth a miracle and became devotedly religious. Hortense was in turn influenced by her own mother, Ambrosia. Ambrosia was only fourteen when she had Hortense, whose father was an English soldier.
The relationship between the mothers and daughters is described like a Russian doll.
[For] if this story is to be told, we will have to put them all back inside each other like Russian dolls, Irie back in Clara, Clara back in Hortense, Hortense back in Ambrosia… (Ch. 13, p. 295)
Hortense’s story also ties back to her own mother. She was the daughter of Captain Durham’s landlady, and the captain was able to get her pregnant (with Hortense). Ambrosia’s mother seems to offer her up to the captain, and suggests that she should be grateful for his teaching since he wanted her to get an education as well as having his baby. He did tutor her, but the lessons always ended in giggling sex. When that’s done, she converted to a Jehovah’s Witness.
Maternal lineage informs identity because the characters become what they are because of what their mothers are. Each one elevates herself just a little, from abject poverty, through the sacrifice of her mother. Ambrosia’s mother sacrificed her daughter’s innocence in hopes that the Englishman’s blood and education would raise her daughter and the baby, and in fact it did. Ambrosia, on the other hand, sacrificed for Hortense in much the same way. She allowed herself to be impregnated by the Englishman, and educated by him and the church, in order to give her daughter a better life.
Hortense is influenced in an interesting way by her mother and grandmother’s sacrifice. Her mother is converted to a Jehovah’s Witness just before Hortense is born.
It was Hortense’s belief that at the moment her mother recognized Jehovah, Hortense herself became conscious, though still inside the womb. (Ch. 13, p. 298)
Hortense’s faith comes from her mother’s conversion, and also from the unusual circumstances of her birth. Hortense was born during an earthquake, and remained a devout Jehovah’s Witness partly because of the supposed miracle of her birth.
Clara is further elevated by marrying Archie at only nineteen. She sees him as a way to escape her current social status, because after all he is an Englishman through and through. With each generation, the girls become more and more successful in terms of rising up in class. Clara’s daughter Irie is an English citizen.
The fact that all of the births are girls is no coincidence, because White Teeth is a story about mothers and daughters. Struggles of race and class are overcome a generation at a time, as each girl becomes mother to another.