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White Teeth (Vintage International) by Zadie Smith
White Teeth (Vintage International)

hheilman_89, May 4, 2010

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is a novel which discusses cultural classes and finding ones roots. The protagonists, Archie and Samad, are WWII friends who now reside in London. Their wives, each many years younger, seem to be very mismatched; their marriages are rocky. However, their children, Irie, Magid and Millat, respectively learn about finding oneself in the midst of cultural conflicts as Archie and Samad learn about understanding despite differences. The complexity of human relationships becomes obvious very quickly, especially as their lives change and intertwine and as other characters are added to the mix.
Zadie Smith speaks for an issue that comes up over and over in society because of the relationships we form ourselves; where there are human beings, there are conflicts simply because of our vast individual differences. The events that link the characters—war, immigration, involvement in fundamentalist groups—are similar to those in our own lives. Other issues include defying one’s heritage in exchange for assimilation in society, tolerance, and consequences of the human condition and cultural differences.
Samad explains, “These days it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started… but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers—who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally housebroken. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact… it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere” (336).
Smith uses one specific symbol throughout her novel: teeth. This was of interest to me because Smith uses this cleverly and in several different manners. The ideas are complex, but not difficult to understand; Smith clearly displays her metaphor. Teeth unify and equalize characters; they are a general symbol for humanity as all people have them. Because they are so common, Smith separates characters if they lose teeth or have false teeth. (“She gave him a wide grin that revealed possibly her one imperfection. A complete lack of teeth in the top of her mouth” (20).) She uses root canals to bring up past events, or to “root around” in the past, or heritage. Likewise, Smith utilizes molars as Samad’s sons reflect and “digest” their father’s actions and their own destinies.
The issue of understanding each other and human relationships comes up again and again. The characters make legitimate attempts to be aware of differences, yet there is an obvious struggle in assimilating and preserving one’s culture. The characters find that one’s heritage veers into different paths; it is not easily defined. The characters take on this challenge differently; Samad makes every attempt to turn his sons into good, Hindu men. Irie finds that her parents neglect to reveal her heritage, so she must find it her own way. Thus, the past restricts at times, and because of this, the present is complicated. The ways in which characters react to these issues bring up our own struggles in maintaining relationships despite different backgrounds.
Zadie Smith’s novel is a successful artwork. She discusses themes applicable to human kind in many different places and times. The ideas are simple to understand, yet the message stays the same; Smith’s ideas will remain as humans continue to struggle to form relationships.
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