Zadie Smith World Literature Analysis - Essay

Zadie Smith World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Zadie Smith is recognized for her wide-ranging, panoramic novels, deeply plotted with an extensive cast of characters. Because of these characteristics, along with the element of social satire, the word “Dickensian” has been frequently used by critics when describing her work. However, Smith’s themes, and the society of which she is a keen observer, are distinctly twenty-first century.

A primary theme of Smith’s work is multicultural identity. Most of her characters identify with more than one culture, country, and ethnicity: Irie Jones, the principal character of White Teeth, is the daughter of a working-class white British father and a Jamaican mother living in multiracial north London. Alex-Li Tandem, the protagonist of The Autograph Man, is a Chinese-Jewish north Londoner, and the Belseys of On Beauty are an interracial couple. Numerous other characters in all three novels are of hybrid ethnicity and/or displaced geographically. The siblings Adam and Esther Jacobs in The Autograph Man are black and Jewish, born in Harlem and living in London. The Muslim brothers Millat and Magid in White Teeth, whose parents are both immigrants from Bangladesh to Great Britain but who are raised separately, one in Chittagong, one in London, are identical twins symbolically torn in half. Ironically, the brother brought up in Bangladesh becomes a conservative white-wigged lawyer, more British than the British, while the brother raised in London becomes associated with a militant Islamic group. The message is that each individual must forge his or her own identity, without mirror or model, and that the contemporary world is multiethnic or global to an extent never before known in European history.

Coincidence, chance, and the unpredictability of life in spite of the best efforts of some of Smith’s characters to control outcomes are also themes in Smith’s work. In White Teeth, Marcus Chalfen’s FutureMouse project is an attempt to completely control genetics, to the point that every event in the mouse’s short life will be predicted, controlled, and observed. However, in the climactic scene at the end of the novel, FutureMouse escapes, evading Chalfen’s plans. Archie Jones in White Teeth bases important decisions on the toss of a coin; Li-Jin Tandem’s autographed pound notes, a central image in The Autograph Man, are created while gambling on the outcome of a wrestling match; all of Howard Belsey’s attempts at control are thwarted, from raising liberal intellectual children in his own image to the chaos of his pivotal lecture on Rembrandt, when he arrives late, soaked with perspiration, and without his notes.

Smith is noted for her style, her vivid description of settings and mannerisms, and especially for her ear for speech. While all three novels employ an omniscient third-person narrator, the use of free, indirect speech in the voice of her many characters showcases her use of dialect, ranging from Archie Jones’s working-class speech, to the hip language of the youth of north London or Boston’s Roxbury, to the discourse of academia. Nonlinear plot development heightens an emphasis on coincidence, ambiguity, and unpredictability. Humor and irony abound in her use of language and social satire, which occasionally shades into farce.

Like her characters, Smith’s work is not easily categorized. It is a hybrid: part popular culture and part dense literary writing. Critical reception has been mixed, perhaps because each book is so different from the others, because the scope of her work is vast, and because expectations have been so shaped by the amount of publicity associated with Smith. Nevertheless, each book has been an award-winner and a best seller, greatly appreciated by the public.

White Teeth

First published: 2000

Type of work: Novel

This novel is a multigenerational, multicultural saga of three families living in north London at the turn of the millennium: the Joneses, a white working-class Englishman married to a Jamaican woman; the Bangladeshi Muslim Iqbals; and the Jewish-Catholic atheist Chalfens.

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 public. All the living characters are present: the senior Joneses and Iqbals; Irie, who has both embraced her Jamaican ancestry by returning to live with her grandmother and decided to go to university under the influence of the educated Chalfens; Joshua Chalfen, who has defied his father by becoming an animal rights...

(The entire section is 2445 words.)