White Teeth by Zadie Smith White Teeth, the novel written by Zadie Smith, has a very peculiar name and the imagery of teeth is brought up many times throughout the novel. I believe that this reoccurring symbolism of teeth are so prominent because teeth are white no matter what a person’s race is; Teeth are something that everyone shares in common despite all our various backgrounds, beliefs, and complexions. Everyone is born with teeth, but how they end up, whether they are cracked, or full of cavities, or completely healthy have to do with your own actions and choices in your life.
Smith addresses this notion further by indirectly making a statement that it’s not our race or nationality that defines our identity, but rather our identity is defined by our own experiences or values. Zadie Smith is half Jamaican and half English and her disparity between two different cultures can be observed in her depiction of the characters in her novel that are caught between conflicting cultures as well. Her mother was born and raised in Jamaica and migrated to England in 1969 where she met Zadie’s English father. Their marriage was his fathers second and both parents divorced when she was a teenager.
It is very interesting to note that she incorporates characters in the story that share a similar background to her. One of the main characters in the story Alfred Archibald Jones, a white Englishman who goes by the nickname Archie, marries a Jamaican woman named Clara and they have a daughter named Irie who struggles to fit in as a mixed-race girl in whitedominant, homogenous London. The sub-story of Irie draws many parallels to Smith herself who was also raised in England where she struggled with her identity as a half Jamaican, half English girl living in England.
In her novel, Irie is clearly described as someone that stands out. “The European proportions of Clara’s figure had skipped a generation, and she was landed instead with Hortense’s substantial Jamaican frame,” (11. 3) Irie feels always secluded from the other children growing up in England during the late 20th century, and her looks do not coincide with the standards of beauty there during that time. This leads her to become very insecure about her appearance, which stems from her insecurity of being a mixed-raced individual living in England.
In an attempt to understand identity, she begins to dig into her past in search for a better understanding of her identity with the thought process that you can define yourself with respect to your race; A conclusion that Smith fundamentally argues against in the novel. As Irie delves deeper into her past she realizes that her family history is jaded with many secrets and her grandmother reveals to her that Archie might not be her biological father and that her real dad is her mom’s ex-boyfriend.
Irie’s story draws a full circle when she becomes pregnant with a child. This child is either that of Millat’s or Magids, but due to them being genetically identical, Irie would never know who the father of her child is. But this time, she decides that she likes it that way and she does not want to repeat her error of digging into her past just to search for herself. Irie figures out how to find herself and how to accept her differences and embrace her identity as a mixed-race woman in a white-dominant homogeneous London.
Millat and Magid themselves are even an example by Smith to demonstrate this notion that we are defined by our own experiences and not of our race. Millat and Magid are identical twins but their father sent Magid away at a young age to Bangladesh for eight years in order for him to lead a more traditional Islamic life style. Their father, Samad is a Bangladeshi immigrant who moved to England where he had Millat and Magid. Samad had an affair with his sons’ music teacher and he channels his guilt and obsession of the idea that he is a terrible Muslim on his children.
He decides he wants his children to retain traditional Bangladeshi and Islamic values in order to save them from the same fate he had as a failed husband and Muslim. “how can I teach my boys anything, how can I show them the straight road when I have lost my own bearings? ” (8. 67) In order to do so, Samad wants to send his sons to Bangladesh to live a more traditional Islamic life style, however, he is unable to send both and decides to send Magid because he has more potential.
Although these two boys are genetically identical, they chose two completely different life paths even despite the stereotypical identities present in the areas where they were raised. Magid became a very well behaved boy who then later involves himself with science, law and atheism despite being sent to Bangladesh to live a traditional life full of Islamic values. Just like how Irie figures out that she doesn’t need to resort to her history to realize who she is, Magid becomes his own person that is drastically different from what his family history and tradition would have wanted him to be.
Millat on the other hand, stayed at home with his dysfunctional family. He began to smoke, drink, and get into trouble and despite growing up surrounded by western cultures and ideals, ends up joining a radical Muslim group known as KEVIN. Joyce, another character in Smith’s novel, attributes Millat’s shortcomings to lack of a strong father figure implying that he was not nurtured correctly. Millat struggled with his search for his identity much more than his twin brother and he never felt like he belonged anywhere. underneath it all, there remained an ever present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere” (11. 29) Similar to Irie, Millat makes the mistake that he can find his identity through digging through his cultural past.
Unlike Irie, who realizes that doing this was a mistake, Millat continues down this path. He follows his cultural ties so extremely that he chooses the most radical version of his culture possible, thus leading him astray to the point of joining the radical Muslim group KEVIN and even to the point at the end f the novel where he takes a shot at Dr. Perret with a pistol during Marcus’s talk. During the end of the novel, Millat becomes so extremely radical of a person that it makes him very hard to relate to. However, he was in the same position as the likeable character Irie in his search for identity; He just got too lost and in his search for his identity, he merely wandered down the wrong path of finding himself.
I believe that Smith made Millat have this identity struggle because it makes him more relatable of a person to people like herself as well as many other first and second-generation immigrants who have faced this struggle of not fitting into a society and the confusion this brings to one’s identity. In conclusion, the overarching theme of self-identity is present all throughout Smith’s novel White Teeth, as demonstrated through numerous characters in the novel including Irie, Millat, and Magid.
Smith was able to portray such a well thought out and heart felt novel on the struggles people face in finding their identity because it was a theme that she had first hand experience with living as a second generation immigrant in England. Just as Smith states in her interview with Charlie Rose, she incorporates parts of herself in her characters. The character Irie in her novel is one of these characters who even has an identical background to Smith as a second-generation immigrant who is half Jamaican and half English.
Irie after much hardship realizes that it’s not our race or nationality that defines our identity, but rather our identity is defined by our own experiences and values. I believe this is the conclusion that Smith had drawn through her own life experiences and incorporated into Irie in the novel to share this life learning experience with the readers. Similarly, Smith titled the novel White Teeth because teeth are the universal symbol of humanity. Everyone is born with teeth, but how the end up have to do with your choices in life similar to Smith’s point that who you are is determined by own experiences and values.