Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866
White Teeth is an immense collision of themes played out in the last decades of the twentieth century. Zadie Smith published her first novel, White Teeth, shortly after graduating from Cambridge, making her entrance into England’s literary heritage and doing so with unthinkable success. As a writer, she is reminiscent of George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie. However, unlike some of her predecessors, Smith writes about England’s contemporary issues, such as immigration and multiculturalism, in the language of those she is writing about. As a true anthropologist, she speaks the dialect of a wide range of people, from a Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness to a street-smart Bangladeshi-English teenager. She demonstrates an incredible sense of empathy toward her characters and is fluent in their cultures.
The characters of Smith’s London come from various continents, cultures, and religions, which makes the intersection of immigration and race one of the most immediately obvious themes of the novel. Smith describes the immense tragedy of immigration, which includes a loss of stability and status and the struggle to assimilate in a new culture without losing one’s native identity. These are daily issues in the household of the Iqbals.
According to critic Mark Rozzo, other immigration/race issues in the novel are the “nationalist fear of miscegenation,” or race mixing, and tolerance. Surprisingly, the leading white character, Archie Jones, displays exceptional tolerance of diversity: His wife, Clara, is biracial and his best friend, Samad Iqbal, is Bangladeshi.
Through the Chalfens and their relationship to the children of the immigrant Iqbals, Smith unveils the “counterpart of white racism,” what critic Meritt Moseley calls white fascination with the Other. Joyce loves Millat as a fetish, while her husband, Marcus, objectifies the exotic wide hips of Irie. Disguised behind their flashy open-mindedness, the Chalfens continuously comment on the color of the children’s skin and on their racial features. To the Chalfens, the children are exotic and fascinating, like Marcus’s genetically manufactured FutureMouse and Joyce’s plants.
Because the novel spans three generations, themes of heritage and family history are prominent as well. These questions arise in every family’s age group. For Samad, it is important to preserve history, as he does with the myth of his great-grandfather, whose heroic contribution to Indian history is questionable. In ways similar to Samad, Archie also is nostalgic about the old ways. His war wound hides a myth of its own: It turns out to be self-inflicted and not the result of some heroic act by a war veteran. Regardless, Archie preserves his memories of the war with self-defensiveness. Samad and Archie continue to retell their wartime woes, most of the time confronting the others’ lack of interest toward history. It is essential, however, for them to preserve those memories, even if the memories are based on lies.
Samad belongs to a generation that views history linearly, with every action having a specific consequence. He is a believer in karma and fate. Clara’s mother, Hortense, shares his outlook but makes religion the prism through which to see the history of the human race. The youngest generation of the novel is presented with a different world—multifaceted and complicated events that also are chaotic and often inconsequential. The Iqbal twins move in opposite directions. Magid, who spends part of his adolescence in Bangladesh, returns to England more Westernized than the English themselves, while Millat eventually returns to his religion but does so through its fundamentalist branch. The twins cling to extremes. Irie endures her own chaos. She is torn between volunteer work in Africa and a career as a dentist and has many choices for hairdos and weight-loss plans. It is Irie’s child who is to inherit the consequences of Irie’s choices, however: The new generation, after the information age, will be born to an even smaller world. The demolition of the Berlin Wall marks the death of the metaphor that has divided the world for so long, and children are now confronted with a world with fewer boundaries. A boundless world eliminates the possibility for a pure race. As Alsana states, “You go back and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe.”
Smith presents other twentieth century issues. For example, through Marcus’s experiments, the novel confronts the question of genetic engineering and its moral and scientific implications. Homosexuality is introduced through the character of Alsana’s lesbian niece, Neena, the Niece-of-Shame. The themes of gender equality, sexual freedoms and limitations, and AIDS also appear in the novel.
Because of its ambitious time span, White Teeth appears to belong to the genre of historical realism. However, the nearly unbelievable turn of events and the novel’s coincidences carry the qualities of Magical Realism. In his review of White Teeth, James Wood argues the novel is a kind of “hysterical,” not historical, realism. He finds Smith’s characters underdeveloped, more like satires, and argues that “information has become the new character.” Still, the novel is ambitious and important, taking its own place in the canon of English literature.