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White Teeth (Vintage International)

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White Teeth (Vintage International) Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

1. White Teeth has generated enormous interest within the publishing world, in part because it is an unusually assured first novel, produced by a writer who is still very young. What aspects of White Teeth--in terms of either style or content--strike you as most unusual in a debut novel? How is White Teeth different from other first novels you have read?

2. A few days before Archie tries to kill himself because his first wife has left him, Samad tries to console him: "You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it . . . there are second chances; oh yes, there are second chances in life" [p. 11]. Does Archie's marriage to Clara constitute a second chance that improves greatly upon the life he had before he met her? Why does the chapter title call the marriage "peculiar" [p. 3]?

3. Why does Archie like to flip a coin in moments of indecision? What does it say about him as a person? How does the opening epigraph, from E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread [p. 1], relate to Archie and his approach to life? Does chance play a more powerful role than will or desire in determining events for other characters in the novel too?

4. Archie "was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean. Needle: Haystack" [p. 10]. Does the fact that Archie is so humble, so lacking in ambition or egotism, make him a more comical character than the serious and frustrated Samad? Is Samad's character ultimately funny as well?

5. Samad imagines a sign that he would like to wear at his restaurant job, a sign that proclaims "I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier . . ." [p. 49]. Why, in all the years that pass during the novel, does Samad not pursue another job? Is it surprising that Samad doesn't seek to change his life in more active ways? Does Islam play a part in this issue?

6. Why is what happened to Samad and Archie during the war more meaningful to them than anything that will happen in their later lives? Why does Samad expect Archie to kill Dr. Sick for him? What exactly has happened in this village--what has the doctor been doing there? Why does Samad feel that the doctor must die? Would it have been out of character for Archie to execute this man?

7. The narrator notes that "it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears--dissolution, disappearance" [p. 272]. Magid and Millat both shirk their Asian roots, though in different ways. Magid begins to call himself Mark Smith while he is still a schoolboy, while Millat models himself on Robert De Niro's character Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver. Irie, on the other hand, is drawn to what she imagines is the "Englishness" of the Chalfens. Is the gradual loss--or active rejection--of one's family heritage an unavoidable consequence of life in a culturally mixed environment?

8. Samad and his wife, Alsana, had a traditional arranged marriage in Bangladesh. Is love irrelevant in a relationship such as theirs? Does the novel indicate that love is a simpler issue for those of the younger generation, who are sexually and emotionally more free to pursue their desires?

9. What is the effect of juxtaposing Alsana with Neena, her "Niece-of-Shame," who is an outspoken feminist and lesbian? Why is Neena one of the novel's most pragmatic--and therefore contented--characters? Why does Alsana ask Neena to act as an intermediary with the Chalfens for Clara and herself?

10. What opportunities for self-expression and community does the sparsely attended but lively pub run by Abdul Mickey offer? Does Smith use the pub as a sort of stage for the everyday comedy and the various ironies of ethnic identity and assimilation in North London? What is funny about the timeline on page 204?

11. Fed up with her own family, Irie goes to stay with her grandmother Hortense, and begins to piece together the details of her ancestry. Does what she learns about her family's history make a difference in her sense of identity or in her ideas about the direction her life should take?

12. What effect does the introduction of the educated, middle-class Chalfen family have on the novel? Why is it significant that Marcus Chalfen comes from a Jewish background? Why are the Chalfens so patronizing toward the Iqbals and the Joneses? Considering Joyce's relationship to Irie and Millat, what is wrong with the liberal sentiments that the Chalfens represent?

13. Why does Smith include an episode in which Millat travels to Bradford with other members of KEVIN to burn copies of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses? Does the fact that none of the boys have actually read the book make their ideological zeal more comical, or more frightening?

14. Why does Smith set up the circumstances of Irie's pregnancy so that it will be impossible for her to know which of the twins is the child's father? How does what we learn about Irie and her daughter on the novel's final page relate to the genealogical chart that appears on page 281?

15. Various characters, from various families in the novel, collide in the novel's climactic scenes leading up to the FutureMouse convention. What are the motivations and beliefs that have put these characters in conflict? Do the issues of religion, science, and animal rights relate to the novel's interest in personal fate and family history?

16. In an interview, Smith says of White Teeth, "I wasn't trying to write about race. . . . Race is obviously a part of the book, but I didn't sit down to write a book about race. The 'Rabbit' books by Updike . . . I could say that [these are] books about race. [Those are] book[s] about white people. [They are] exactly book[s] about race as mine is. It doesn't frustrate me. I just think that it is a bizarre attitude. So is [it that] a book that doesn't have exclusively white people in the main theme must be one about race? I don't understand that."* What are some of the indications in White Teeth that Smith is not as interested in race as she is the juxtaposition and interaction of people from different ethnic groups living their daily lives?

17. Do the children of Archie and Samad experience their ethnic or racial identities in different ways than their parents do? If so, why? Is Smith suggesting that there is a rising trend in intermarriage between members of different races and ethnicities, so that these issues become of less interest, or meaning, as time passes? Is Alsana right when she says, "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" [p. 196]?

18. With White Teeth, Zadie Smith shows herself to be a brilliant mimic of the sounds of urban speech. In which parts of the novel does she display this skill to the greatest effect? How does her prose style work to convey the busy, noisy soundscape of a multicultural metropolis?

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Average customer rating based on 13 comments:

librariphile, September 24, 2013 (view all comments by librariphile)
I may be late to this party, but I'm still thrilled to be here.

This book is fabulous. I think about the characters and what they're up to when I'm not reading it. I love Smith's wit, character development, and ability to write about race and gender. Love. Can't wait to read everything she writes.
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Baochi, June 16, 2012 (view all comments by Baochi)

From the Baochi Book Collection
Zadie Smith's White Teeth was published in 2000 and received critical acclaim. The novel won numerous awards, including Time Magazine's 2005 list of 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923. I think White Teeth is a magnificent work of fiction filled with wit, satire, depth, and a cast of unforgettable characters.

The novel takes place in contemporary London and centers around two men -- Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal -- and their families. Englishman Archie and Muslim Bengali Samad form an unlikely friendship as soldiers during World War II and later become neighbors in a working-class suburb. After a failed first marriage, the once-conventional Archie unconventionally marries Clara, a Jamaican woman. The couple has a daughter named Irie. Samad enters into a pre-arranged marriage with Alsana, and they have twin boys named Millat and Magid.

As the members of the two families struggle to define their individual identities in a political and racially-charged society, their bond to one another becomes tenuous. Expectations abound between these two intertwined clans. Samad, a sometimes erring and devout Muslim, finds that his wife's will outmatches his own and that his wayward twin sons have strayed from his religious faith and their Bengali roots. Simple Archie wants everyone to just get along; he is baffled by the tension between his wife and daughter, as well as the teenage angst rippling through all three kids.

White Teeth is a novel about the history of ordinary yet multi-faceted people. It's the story of old and new roots, the immigration experience with its expectations and disappointments. Immigrant parents strive to preserve their native culture yet their children draw towards assimilation with the new world.

Significantly, the novel takes place shortly before the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and a few years prior to the 2005 London underground bombings. So Smith's London is a melting pot simmering up with ethnic tension, especially among Islam extremists.

When it feels like the world is coming to an end (and even when it doesn't), Samad and Archie retreat to the sanctuary of an Irish pub-turned-immigrant-bar with an exclusively-male clientele. There, over a hodgepodge of greasy food, the men reminisce about their personal histories and commiserate over life's disappointments. They are a picture of opposite extremes, one white and uncomplicated if not clueless and the other dark, intense, and anxious. The combination of Archie and Samad is a comical one; their exchanges are often chuckle-worthy. In fact, humor and satire pervade throughout the novel, perhaps a reminder that while the themes of race, religion, and identity are important they shouldn't be taken so seriously that one can't enjoy a beer and grub with one's friend of another race in a bar where everybody knows your name. It makes you wonder if Archie's simple desire for everybody to get along is in fact profoundly utopian.

White Teeth is an energetic, delightful novel worthy of dissection and analysis in a college literature course. I'm impressed.

Below are a few of my favorite passages from Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

"...don't ever underestimate people, don't ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television., from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt.

What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping Madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll -- then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect."
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hheilman_89, May 4, 2010 (view all comments by hheilman_89)
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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Product Details

ISBN:
9780375703867
Author:
Smith, Zadie
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Author:
Smith, Zadie
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
England
Subject:
Male friendship
Subject:
Domestic fiction
Subject:
London (england)
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage International (Paperback)
Publication Date:
20010631
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
464
Dimensions:
8 x 5.1 x 1 in 0.75 lb

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White Teeth (Vintage International) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 464 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375703867 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[A] vibrant, rollicking first novel about race and idenity....[Smith's] prickly wit is affectionate and poignant."
"Review" by , "[A] marvel of a debut novel....Reminiscent of both Salman Rushdie and John Irving, White Teeth is a comic, canny, sprawling tale, adeptly held together by Smith's literary sleight of hand."
"Review" by , "A magnificent and audacious novel, jam-packed with memorable characters and challenging ideas."
"Review" by , "Ambitious, earnest and irreverent....Smith has a real talent for comedy and a fond eye for human foibles."
"Review" by , "Smith has an astonishing intellect. She writes sharp dialogue for every age and race — and she's funny as hell."
"Review" by , "Gently observant and generous in its judgments. Filled with vibrant life."
"Synopsis" by , At the center of this invigorating and hilarious novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, hapless veterans of World War II. Set against London's racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire's past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth is an international bestseller now available in paperback.
"Synopsis" by , US
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