Student Question

What is the setting of White Teeth?

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The setting of this novel is very important, as Smith uses it to develop her theme of multiculturalism as she explores how Britain, and in particular London, has changed as a result of immigration. The reader is presented with a bewildering hybrid mix of different cultures, religions and traditions all competing with each other for dominance. Note how this is presented through the setting of Willesden, where the Iqbal's move to. In this quote Alsana compares her new home to her previous home in Whitechapel:

Not like Whitechapel, where that madman E-knock someoneoranother gave a speech that forced them into the basement while kids broke the windows with their steel-capped boots. Rivers of blood silly-billy nonsense.... Mali's Kebabs, Mr Cheungs, Raj's, Malkovich Bakeries--she read the new, unfamiliar signs as she passed. She was shrewd. She knew what this was... It was only that here, in Willesden, there was just not enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing and send it running to the cellars while windows were smashed.

Note the description of the different signs advertising the different shops and the different cultural backgrounds implicit in each. Willesden, as a microcosm of London and of Britain itself, actually consists of vast numbers of immigrants and thus the action of the novel is played out against this multicultural setting. The only difference between Willesden and Whitechapel, Alsana discerns, is that there are so many small groups of immigrants that no one group is bigger than the others and thus no one group can dominate and impose itself on the others. The reference to Enoch Powell also reminds the reader of the much darker, uglier side to immigration, as the white majority in Britain initially greeted immigrants with suspicion and, unfortunately, violence.

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