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Below is a summary of White Teeth and an explanation of the book's genre. You will also find an analysis of the themes in the novel and a table of key quotes.
White Teeth begins with Archie Jones, a white, middle-aged English man, in a car on New Year's Day 1975. He is attempting to commit suicide because his Italian wife, Ophelia, has divorced him after thirty years together. However, he is trying to do this on the property of a local butcher. The butcher interrupts and stops him. Archie takes this as a sign that he has been saved and suddenly has a new lease for life. He stops by a New Year's Eve party, where he meets Clara Bowden, a beautiful Jamaican woman who is much younger than him. They fall for each other and quickly marry only six weeks later.
Clara soon finds Archie boring but remains with him because she enjoys her life away from her mother. Clara is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, Hortense. Hortense is a pious Jehovah's Witness, but Clara does not share her mother's beliefs. She leads the life of a regular young person, drinking and partying, both of which are forbidden for Jehovah's Witnesses. Clara was romantically involved with a man named Ryan Topps during her teens. However, Ryan grew close to Hortense and eventually converted. He later becomes her live-in carer of sorts.
Jehovah's Witnesses are a branch of Christianity. They disagree with many beliefs of traditional Christianity. Members of the church are also subject to strict rules; for example, smoking, having blood transfusions, and having premarital sex are all banned.
Archie and Clara live in Willesden in London, where they are close friends with another couple, Samad and Alsana Iqbal. Samad and Archie were soldiers together in the last days of the Second World War, stationed in Bulgaria. The battalion they were part of had little impact on the war. However, Archie and Samad did capture a notorious Nazi doctor and collaborator, Dr Marc-Pierre Perret. Samad wanted to kill him, but Archie failed to carry this out, unbeknownst to Samad. Samad has always had high expectations of himself. He feels he must live up to the memory of his great-grandfather, who is said to have begun the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Samad himself is a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh. After the war, Samad moved to Britain and had an arranged marriage with Alsana.
Clara and Alsana fall pregnant at the same time. Clara gives birth to Irie, and Alsana gives birth to twins Magid and Millat. The children are all friends and go to school together. When they are ten years old, Samad has an affair with one of their teachers. He feels a deep guilt about this, as well as about his inability to stick to the rules of his Muslim faith. Samad sends Magid to their home country of Bangladesh to try to reconnect the family with their culture. Meanwhile, Millat stays behind in Britain. As he grows older, he develops more radical views. Millat joins a group called the 'Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation', or KEVIN for short.
Meanwhile, Irie, too, has been growing up and struggling with her personal identity. She has also developed a romantic interest in Millat. Millat, Irie, and another student named Joshua Chalfen are discovered to have marijuana while at school. Irie and Millat are sent to be tutored by Joshua's parents as punishment. Joshua's parents, Joyce and Marcus, encapsulate middle-class liberalism. Marcus is a geneticist who is pioneering a study known as 'FutureMouse'. The study involves engineering a tumour in a mouse to study its progression.
At this point in the story, all the young characters in some way distance themselves from their parents. Millat grows somewhat close to Joyce Chalfen, who believes she can save him from the path he is going down. However, he remains a member of KEVIN. Joshua, on the other hand, joins an animal rights group called 'Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation' (FATE) to spite his father. Magid returns from Bangladesh, an atheist who was not Samad's hope for him. He has also been corresponding with Marcus Chalfen and joins his project as a marketer. Irie wishes to travel to Africa after she has finished school, but Clara disapproves. Therefore, Irie moves in with Hortense for a period. Irie also realises her attraction to Millat, and the two have sex. He then rejects her, and Irie has sex with Magid not long after. She falls pregnant but does not know who is the father.
New Year's Eve 1992 is the reveal of Marcus's 'FutureMouse' study. Both Millat and KEVIN and Joshua and FATE are there to protest the project. Hortense and the Jehovah's witnesses are also protesting. Archie and Samad discover that Marcus's mentor on this project has been Dr Perret, the Nazi collaborator that Archie failed to kill. Samad is furious about this and rushes over to Archie. However, just then, Millat pulls out a gun and attempts to shoot Dr Perret. Archie jumps in front of the bullet and is hit in the leg. The case with the mouse in it is knocked to the ground, and the animal runs away.
White Teeth ends with both Millat and Magid being ordered to do community service for the shooting as witnesses cannot decide which one of them shot the gun. Irie and Joshua begin a relationship, raising Irie's child as their own. O'Connell's pub, that Archie and Samad have frequented for many years, opens its doors to women and their wives join them there.
White Teeth is a postcolonial novel.
Postcolonialism explores the cultural, social, and economic legacies left behind in a formerly colonised country. The impacts of colonisation can haunt nations for decades and centuries to come. The theory rose to prevalence in the twentieth century as many nations that had once been occupied and colonised by powerful Western nations, like Britain and France, began to gain independence.
White Teeth is a multicultural novel that accurately represents Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century. By this time, many citizens of formerly colonised nations had moved to Britain, often for job opportunities. This complicated these people's relationship with Britain as their former oppressor but also now their home.
These issues are addressed by Smith in White Teeth. This is most obviously found in the character of Millat Iqbal. Millat joins KEVIN as he feels his Muslim identity is not respected in 1980s Britain. Smith is representing history here. Islamophobic prejudices were a prevalent issue in Britain at this time. The majority of central characters face racial prejudices in White Teeth. Irie deals with racial slurs from her classmates, and despite his high level of education, Samad is unable to get any job other than a waiter.
Read on for a further analysis of White Teeth.
Below are key themes in White Teeth.
White Teeth centres around multiple families, two of which are comprised of first and second generation immigrants. Smith depicts familial conflicts and the ways in which parents can lose control of their children as they grow up and develop their own views, be they positive or negative.
Samad struggles greatly to have a positive influence on Magid and Millat. He sends Magid back to Bangladesh to reconnect with their religious and cultural roots. In doing this, Samad separates the family, most significantly splitting up the twins. Magid does not live up to Samad's expectations of connecting to his Bangladeshi heritage. He finds the ways of the country old-fashioned and eventually becomes an atheist.
On the other hand, Millat turns towards Islamic extremism. This also creates distance within the Iqbal family. While Samad is religious, he is not the violent extremist that Millat is. Millat also refuses to see Magid when he returns from Bangladesh as he disapproves of Magid's atheism.
History and the past are also relevant in White Teeth. Many of the characters spend much of their time looking back instead of forward and basing their decisions on things that have happened in the past. Samad is obsessed with the story of Mangal Pande, the man who began the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He is certain this man is his great-grandfather. It is hinted that this is a tenuous link and, additionally, that Pande may not have been a good man. However, Samad disregards this, trying to live up to his vision of Pande and always feeling as if he has fallen short. Millat is also inspired by Pande's action when he attempts to shoot Dr Perret at the 'FutureMouse' launch event. Both men idealise the past, resulting in negative consequences.
This is a table of important quotes from Smith's novel.
|'“Do you know who this man is, Jones?” Samad grabbed the doctor by the back of his hair and bent his neck over the back seat..."He’s a scientist, like me—but what is his science? Choosing who shall be born and who shall not—breeding people as if they were so many chickens, destroying them if the specifications are not correct. He wants to control, to dictate the future.'
|This is how Samad describes Dr Perret to Archie. He goes into detail about the horrors Perret has committed under the Nazi regime. Samad's hatred for him is obvious. This exacerbates Samad's shock upon seeing him again all those years later, in 1990.
|'He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelled of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a filmmaker;'
|Millat succinctly gets across the difficulties of being a person of colour in Britain at this time. He will be lumped in with a group, regardless of who he truly is. He is also aware that he will be judged and stereotyped no matter what he does. Attitudes like these push him towards joining a group like KEVIN.
|'Because Millat was here to finish it. To revenge it. To turn that history around. He liked to think he had a different attitude, a second-generation attitude. If Marcus Chalfen was going to write his name all over the world, Millat was going to write his BIGGER. There would be no misspelling his name in the history books. There’d be no forgetting the dates and times. Where Pande misfooted he would step sure. Where Pande chose A, Millat would choose B.'
|This quote is key for the theme of history in White Teeth. Millat is looking back and directly linking himself to the life of his great-great-grandfather, Pande. He believes he can improve on what Pande once did. Millat is explicitly influenced by the past. However, he is not successful in shooting Perret as he thinks he will be.
The message of Smith's novel is the importance of looking forward and the true benefits of multiculturalism.
Smith was inspired to write her novel because she witnessed intergenerational issues being passed on from parents to children and the impacts this can have.
Smith wrote White Teeth based on experiences she had had growing up in London in the 1980s.
Family and history are the main themes in Smith's novel.
The symbolism of teeth appears throughout Smith's novel. They are a key body part to focus on as they are one of the few parts of the human body that are the same colour on everyone.
When was White Teeth published?
What genre is White Teeth?
What are two key themes in White Teeth?
Family and history.
What religion is Hortense?
As soldiers, where were Samad and Archie stationed?
Which family member does Samad always compare himself to?
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