White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth, caused a sensation when it first appeared in 2000. It was clear that an exciting young voice – Smith was only 24 at the time of publication – had emerged, one with a talent for channeling the energy and chaos of contemporary urban life into a captivating story. 

The novel’s importance

Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth, caused a sensation when it first appeared in 2000. It was clear that an exciting young voice – Smith was only 24 at the time of publication – had emerged, one with a talent for channeling the energy and chaos of contemporary urban life into a captivating story. 

White Teeth follows the intertwining lives of two North London families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, over the course of several decades. Throughout the book, Smith weaves in themes of national identity, race, religion, and the struggle to make sense of the rapidly changing modern world.

The popularity and critical acclaim that White Teeth achieved upon publication has not diminished in the years since. The book is now widely considered a modern classic, praised for its energetic prose, multi-layered plot, and memorable cast of characters. 

Importantly, it also offers a window into the multicultural, multi-ethnic character of 21st century London, addressing issues that continue to be relevant today. Whether you are a first-time reader or revisiting the book, there is much to be gained from immersing yourself in the world of White Teeth.

Key themes

One of the major themes that Zadie Smith explores in White Teeth is the concept of cultural identity. Through the experiences of her diverse cast of characters, Smith takes an in-depth look at the ways people adapt, or fail to adapt, to living in a multicultural society. By showcasing the different ways people grapple with their sense of self, Smith invites readers to consider their own identities in relation to the world around them.

Smith also explores the concept of family, and how different generations interact with one another. The novel frequently portrays conflicts between parents and children, with youngsters struggling to understand the expectations and pressures placed on them. For many characters in the novel, family ties are as much a source of stress and frustration as they are comforting and supportive. Through these complex relationships, Smith highlights the ways that familial bonds can both shape and restrict our lives.

Historical context

One factor that contextualizes Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth, is the fact that it was written during the late 1990s, a time of increasing diversity in Britain. As a result of globalization, the number of migrants and refugees to Britain steadily rose during this time period. So, too, did the number of Britons from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds playing prominent roles in the culture – from prominent politicians to sports stars and, of course, writers. This context of diversity and multiculturalism likely shaped Smith’s decision to create characters from different ethnic backgrounds as well as her exploration of the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

Another noteworthy aspect of the historical context is that the novel’s publication in 2000 came shortly after the highly publicized and contentious British general election of 1997. This election brought Tony Blair’s Labour Party to power after almost two decades of Conservative rule. Blair’s election ushered in a new era in British politics, marked by promises of progressive change and a new way of thinking. White Teeth reflects the optimism and desire for change felt in Britain at that time, whilst also grappling with the complex realities of contemporary life.

Intellectual and cultural context

When Smith was writing White Teeth in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the intellectual and cultural landscape in Great Britain was in flux. The recent election of Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997 had paved the way for new social and economic policies, and as a result, the population was confronting the legacies of Thatcherism and Cold War politics. White Teeth channels this feeling of change and transition, exploring questions around cultural identity and the complexities of Britain at the dawn of the 21st century.

At the same time, Smith’s debut novel entered into a literary landscape that was also moving towards a more diverse and global outlook. The late ’90s and early 2000s saw the publication of other novels that dealt with questions about family and identity in postcolonial and multicultural contexts, such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. White Teeth, with its focus on racial and ethnic diversity, intertwined family histories, and exploration of the migrant experience, tapped into these broader cultural conversations.

Plot

White Teeth tells the story of three families living in London and their intertwining lives during the second half of the 20th century. The book starts by introducing its two central characters: Archie Jones, a white English man, and Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim. The two meet during World War II and form a lifelong friendship, bonded by their shared experiences in the war. As the novel progresses, we see how their individual stories, and those of their families, intersect in increasingly meaningful ways.

In addition to exploring the lives of its primary characters, the book also touches on a range of themes and social issues, such as race, identity, multiculturalism, and immigration. Smith weaves these threads together to create a complex picture of London during this pivotal time period, showing how individual lives are impacted by both local and global forces.

Narrative structure

One aspect of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth that is particularly noteworthy is the narrative structure. Although the novel is primarily chronological, there are occasional shifts back in time that fill in critical backstory for key characters. For example, some chapters recount the early lives of characters like Archie, Clara, and Samad, which help explain their motivations and idiosyncrasies as adults. These shifts in time also contribute to the suspense and intrigue for the reader, as they provide answers to questions posed earlier in the novel.

Additionally, the novel makes use of multiple points of view in order to offer a wider perspective on events. Most of the characters take turns narrating – even minor figures with otherwise small roles – which affords Smith the opportunity to convey an array of cultural and generational points of view. This multifaceted approach is crucial to the book’s thematic exploration of identity, race, and belonging, as it invites the reader to consider each character’s unique experience.

Key characters

One of the key characters in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is Clara Bowden, a Jamaican woman who leaves home to settle in London. Clara is important because she establishes the theme of cultural dislocation in the novel, by grappling with the challenges of adapting to a new place and forging relationships. She also contributes to the theme of identity, as she navigates issues of race, class, and religion, all of which impact her sense of self.

Another pivotal character in the novel is Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi Muslim who is also dealing with various forms of displacement. Samad is significant because he offers a different perspective on cultural assimilation—as he is often set on preserving his own culture, and is resistant to change. Additionally, Samad’s tense relationship with his twin sons forms a key subplot in the novel, which Smith uses to explore the multigenerational effects of immigration

Literary devices

One of the key literary devices that Smith employs in White Teeth is the use of multiple perspectives. By juggling multiple storylines, Smith presents different sides of London life, introducing the reader to the experiences and viewpoints of a diverse array of characters. This technique allows her to explore different cultures, attitudes, and backgrounds in a way that would not have been possible in a strictly single-perspective work.

Another effective technique Smith uses in the novel is satire. Throughout the book, she often takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to presenting certain aspects of British society, using humor and wit to poke fun at various societal norms and expectations. The intention, it seems, is to draw attention to the absurdity or folly of these customs and to subvert the reader’s expectations. By doing so, Smith encourages a more critical and questioning approach to the culture in which her characters reside.

Symbolism

Throughout the novel, Smith employs metaphors and analogies to capture the subtle complexities of her characters and themes. For example, the theme of cultural identity is explored by using the metaphor of a “root canal” to convey the pain of assimilation that many immigrants experience.

In addition to the novel’s broader themes, Smith also uses symbolism to unravel the characters’ inner struggles. Take for instance the motif of white teeth itself: the characters’ frequent conversations and musings about their dental health can be seen as symbolizing their desire for acceptance and perfection. By using metaphors and analogies in this way, Smith is able to communicate complex ideas and messages in an accessible manner that resonates with readers.

Critical readings

There are a variety of ways in which critics have interpreted Zadie Smith’s novel, White Teeth. Some critics see the book as an exploration of multiculturalism and the impact of various ethnic backgrounds in modern London. Others have focused on the novel’s themes of identity and belonging, noting that Smith’s characters are often caught between different communities and cultures, searching for a sense of home.

Many critics have also praised the novel for its ability to depict complex issues such as race, religion, and national identity in a humorous and accessible way. Some highlights of the critical conversation around White Teeth also emphasize the novel’s use of satire to critique and expose different social structures and how they limit or empower certain individuals. As such, critics often argue that the novel is a timely and relevant examination of contemporary social issues.

Influence

One major influence that White Teeth has had is on the literary world itself. Zadie Smith’s critically acclaimed debut novel has gone on to inspire many writers who have followed in her footsteps. Smith’s unique blend of humor and insight, as well as her depiction of multiculturalism in contemporary London, has paved the way for other authors to explore similar themes in their work.

In terms of its broader cultural impact, White Teeth has also had a significant effect. As a book that grapples with issues of race and class, it has resonated with readers all over the world. In particular, the novel has been praised for its ability to address complex topics in an accessible and engaging way. As a result, Smith’s work has helped to foster conversations about the importance of cultural diversity, the need to break down barriers between people, and the power of stories to connect us all.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

Introduction;

In the long history of literature, the novel as we know it today is a relatively recent invention. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that something approximating our idea of a novel emerged, with Miguel de Cervantes’s groundbreaking masterpiece Don Quixote.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne;

Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, first published in nine volumes over the course of seven years (1759-1767), is considered one of the greatest novels of the eighteenth century.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen;

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813, is one of the most celebrated novels in the English language.

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley;

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818, is often considered one of the earliest examples of the science fiction genre.

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens;

Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, first published in 1861, is a classic of 19th-century English literature.

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky;

Fydor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866, is often hailed as one of the most significant works of Russian literature.

Copyright (c) 2023 Kinnu Ltd.