‘White Teeth’ Synposis

From 2002 BBC adaptation

White Teeth is the 2000 novel by British writer Zadie Smith. We’ll only have time to read a relatively short excerpt, the second section “Samad: 1984, 1857” (pps. 103-217). I think this passage works well on its own. Nonetheless, since we’re skipping part one (which I invite you to read if you’d like to and have the time), I thought it would be useful to provide you a quick summary of what leads up to this section. Without further ado:

White Teeth, set primarily in London, follows the relationship of two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals. Broadly, the novel engages themes of migrant and British identity.

The novel opens on New Year’s Eve 1975 with middle-aged Englishman Archie Jones’ failed suicide attempt. Saved by a Muslim butcher (who believes a suicide in his parking lot would not be “halal”), Archie is given a new lease on life. He wanders into a New Year’s Eve party and meets Clara Bowden, a young woman of Jamaican descent. Archie is smitten by her beauty save for one detail: her missing front teeth. Nonetheless, the two quickly marry.

The novel then moves backward to give us Clara’s backstory. Raised in London by her mother as a strict Jehovah’s Witness, she rebels by carrying on a relationship with Ryan Topps, a “mod” with a scooter whom Clara regards as exciting and “dangerous.” After the two are involved in a scooter accident (which knocks out Clara’s front teeth), an ironic reversal takes place: shocked by the near-death experience and believing it a sign that he is one of “God’s elect,” Ryan becomes a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Clara, by contrast, completely loses her faith and takes up with hippies and bohemians. Amongst this company at the “End of the World” New Year’s Eve party (named so because of a Jehovah’s Witness belief that the world would end in 1975), Clara meets Archie. They eventually have a child, Irie, who remains troubled by her dual identity as she grows throughout the novel.

Unlike his daughter, Archie is completely uncurious about his origins and sense of identity. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe Archie as the most boring man in the world. Strangely for a protagonist, his only distinguishing characteristic is his inability to make decisions: he always, instead, flips a coin to avoid taking any solid positions.

The novel contrasts Archie to his best friend, the Bangladeshi immigrant Samad Iqbal, the both of whom met serving in Europe during World War II. When we meet Samad, he is working as a waiter in a British Indian restaurant, a job he detests because of his educated upbringing. Samad also believes that he descends from a great lineage of Indian patriots dating back to the 1857 Mutiny against British rule. Unlike Archie, Samad is obsessed with knowing “where he comes from” and maintaining a “pure” sense of Bengali and Muslim identity despite residing in Britain. He and his wife Alsana (who were wedded in an arranged marriage) have twins, Millat and Magid, whose lives go in two completely different directions. We’ll learn more about Samad, Millat, and Magid in the assigned section.

You’ll be able to fill in the rest from here!

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