writer, director, editor
On Zadie Smith's White Teeth
September 14, 2021

Zadie Smith's 2000 debut novel White Teeth is a multifaceted story concerning the relationship between Britain and its growing number of immigrants. It primarily follows the families of two English World War II veterans; the native Archie Jones and the Bengali Samad Iqbal. The two veterans, joined by a traumatic experience that took the lives of their platoon in the final days of the war, have become troubled in the decades following; Archie has married, divorced, and remarried with a girl a half his age while Samad has taken part in an increasingly unhappy arranged marriage with the similarly young Alsana. Archie fathers a daughter with his second wife, the Jamaican-born Clara, while Samad fathers two sons; it is through the lives of these youths that the experience of a colored person in England is explored. Irie, Archie and Clara's daughter, is one of the scant few mixed-race people in her school group, leading to insecurities regarding her appearance, compounding the usual struggles of puberty. Meanwhile, the younger Iqbal son, Millat, finds a lack of identity as he is drawn towards Western pursuits and interests, much to the chagrin of his father. Samad, a devout Muslim, struggles with his faith; he is tempted by Poppy Burt-Jones, one Millat's teachers. Later on, Samad comes to believe that there are irreconcilable differences between an Eastern and Western upbringing and, without his wife's knowledge, he arranges for his oldest son, Magid, to be shipped away to Bengal where he will be raised in a more traditional environment. Naturally, this proves to have the opposite effect of what Samad intends; when Magid comes of age, he becomes enamored with law and later is taken under the mentorship of genetic scientist Marcus Chalfen.

Marcus Chalfen and his family are one of the more interesting elements of White Teeth's narrative; the family doesn't appear until around halfway through the novel, however their appearance becomes the dominating force of the story as the Chalfens become increasingly involved with the Jones and Iqbal families, culminating in the third act wherein Marcus Chalfen's recent work in genetic experimentation sparks national backlash as explored through the lives of the younger generation of characters. The Chalfens consist, largely, of Marcus, his doting wife Joyce, and Joshua, one of their four sons.

Each of these three youths, Irie, Millat, and Joshua, find themselves by separating almost completely from their parents; Irie runs away from home to live with her grandmother, Hortense Bowden. Hortense is strongly connected to her Jamaican heritage as well as the religious background assoacited with it. Most interestingly, Hortense's religious beliefs stem partially from her own mother, Ambrosia Bowden (the source of Irie's middle name). Ambrosia's story is one of the more interesting anecdotes the story includes and we'll discuss this later on.

Millat's relationship with his family is strained from an early age due to the Western influence Millat has taken to. As a result, Millat rarely comes home after he befriends the Chalfen family, and his whereabouts are largely unknown as he mills around town, attempting to find himself through his increasing involvement in religious fundamentalist group KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Vicious Islamic Nation). This show of "out-Islaming" his father continues to a fault as KEVIN begins a slow transformation into a terrorist organization.

Joshua begins his story through the connection of Irie and Millat; the three are involved in long-standing love triangle as Joshua has a crush on Irie while Irie maintains a crush on Millat. As Irie and Millat are displaced from their families and begin spending more time with the Chalfens, Joshua comes to hate the singularness of his own family, designated as "Chalfenism," and grows a notable dislike for his father, Marcus. When Marcus's experiment, the "FutureMouse," is scheduled for a public demonstration, Joshua rebels in the most extreme way possible by joining the eco-terrorist cell FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation), who are planning an attack on the FutureMouse conference.

The final act of the FutureMouse conference also includes one of White Teeth's most fascinating elements; its use of "hybrid realism" in its historical narratives. This, like the main drivers of the story, takes three different forms; The first is the oft-repeated story of Mangal Pandey, a real person whom Samad claims is his great-grandfather. Samad is singularly obsessed with Pandey's story, especially in regards to how he fired the frist shot of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

The second is the aforementioned story of Ambrosia Bowden, Hortense's mother, Clara's grandmother, Irie' great-grandmother. Ambrosia, a second-generation slave, is brought into the fold of Christianity and, while pregnant with Hortense, is almost raped  in a cathedral. However, she is saved, near-biblically, by the 1907 Kingston earthquake, which kills her attacker mid-assault. This event is what eventually leads to Hortense's devout religious faith. Despite the relative brevity of this story, its the most prominent example of the hybrid realism demonstrated in the narrative.

Finally, the culminating moment of the FutureMouse conference harkens back to chronological start to this whole story; Archie and Samad on the ground in World War II. With the rest of their platoon completely wiped out, Archie and Samad come across a Nazi scientist. Archie is given the task of killing him, while Samad stays near their damaged Humvee. The first time we hear this story is from Samad, who recalls how he heard the gunshot and how Archie returned to the Humvee alone shortly afterwards. The second time we hear this story is amidst the FutureMouse conference; FATE, with Joshua in tow, is planning to attack the conference and free the mouse at its center. Meanwhile, KEVIN, with Millat in tow, is planning the same, though their motivation is to kill Marcus Chalfen, seeing his experiments as an affront to God. Irie is at the conference as well, as she had been working as Marcus's secretary for past few months against Hortense's wishes. As Marcus begins the conference, Archie, who is in the audience, recalls his time in World War II and we see his interaction with the Nazi from his perspective. Archie, whose marked indecision is a recurring part of his character, is troubled on whether to execute the Nazi and instead flips a coin, with heads meaning he'd kill the Nazi and tails meaning he'd let him go. He overshoots the coin flip, causing it to land several feet behind him. As he goes to retrieve the coin, the Nazi takes his gun and shoots him in the leg. Archie chastises the Nazi as he takes his gun back, pointing out that the coin landed on tails. When Marcus Chalfen announces his co-workers on the FutureMouse project, both Archie and Samad recognize one of the names; the aforementioned Nazi scientist. This novel-spanning callback serves as White Teeth's final moments; Archie sees Millat pull out a gun to shoot the Nazi and instinctively rushes towards the stage, where he takes Millat's gunshot in his leg. All the while, Samad curses at Archie as he realizes Archie has now spared this Nazi twice.

Hybrid realism is an element of "maximalist novels" as defined by Stefano Ercolino. Ercolino coins "hybrid realism" as a term to demonstrate the anti-realist tendencies derived from the rise of magical realism in 20th century literature, including things "plausible" or "ridiculous" in otherwise grounded narratives. While Ercolino explicitly calls out White Teeth's KEVIN as an example of this due to the absurdity of their acronym, I find that a sentiment of anti-realism demarcates the above historical stories in White Teeth's narrative. While Zadie Smith does not pursue this thread of anti-realism as far as her contemporaries in maximalist novels do, elements of it are nonetheless still present in the three stories I described. As someone with great interest in maximalist novels, I find the hybrid realism on display, most especially in Ambrosia's case, to be fascinating narrative tools.

Speaking of maximalist novels, this particular "genre" of literature is quite nebulously defined and the term "maximalist novel" is often interchanged with "encyclopedic novel" and "hysterical realist." In fact, the term "hysterical realism" originated in a review of White Teeth, harkening back (perhaps unintentionally) to the oft-used diagnoses of hysteria commonly applied to women. "Hysterical realism" was derisively coined to describe White Teeth and its cavalcade of interconnected stories, claiming that, "since the characters in [this novel] are not really alive, not fully human, their connectedness can only be insisted on." Nonetheeless, Smith embraced the company the term "hysterical realism" associated her with, including authors David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon.

While there's no denying Smith managed to find intertextual connections wherever she could within White Teeth, it would be an immature assumption to make that this cheapens the thematic impact and relevance these connections manage to impress upon the reader. While Smith's later work distances itself somewhat from the maximalist elements of White Teeth, this debut novel, as it stands, is worthy of both consumption and analysis, even two decades later.


(in alphabetical order)

Alfred Archibald Jones, a twice-married English WWII veteran.

Alsana Iqbal, a Bengal woman in an arranged marriage with Samad Iqbal.

Clara Jones, Archie's second wife.

Denzel and Clarence, a pair of elderly regulars at O'Connell's.

Irie Amborisa Jones, the daughter of Archie and Clara. She is insecure about what separates her from her white classmates, manifesting primarily in insecurity regarding her weight and her hair.

Joely, a leading member of the eco-terrorist organization FATE. Her unusual attractiveness makes her an object of sexual interest from many of FATE's members, especially Joshua Chalfen.

Joshua Chalfen, one of the Chalfen's four sons. As a rebellious teenager, he pretends to be into drugs to impress others, especially his crush, Irie. Later, his rebellious streak grows and he joins the eco-terrorist organization FATE so as to oppose his father's genetic experimentaiton.

Joyce Chalfen, the doting matriarch of the Chalfen family. She is an ardent proponent of "Chalfenism" and takes a mothering role towards Millat as he strays from his family.

Mad Mary, a mentally unwell woman living in England.

Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal, the older son of Samad and Alsana. He is sent away to Bengal to learn a more traditional style of Islam, however he strays from this intention and falls in with the scientist Marcus Chalfen.

Marcus Chalfen, Joyce Chalfen's husband. Marcus is a genetic engineer whose recent work has sparked national controversy.

Millat Zulfikar Iqbal, the troubled younger son of Samad and Alsana.

Neesa, also called "Niece-of-Shame"

Poppy Burt-Jones, an English schoolteacher. She is briefly involved in an affair with Samad Iqbal.

Samad Miah Iqbal, a Bengalese-English veteran of WWII.

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