Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 1 Chapter 2 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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Course Hero, "White Teeth Study Guide," July 20, 2017, accessed October 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/White-Teeth/.

White Teeth | Part 1, Chapter 2 : Archie 1974, 1945 (Teething Trouble) | Summary

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Summary

Clara Bowden came to England at age 16 with her mother, Hortense Bowden, a devout Jehovah's Witness. Hortense, born during the 1907 Kingston earthquake in Jamaica, conceived Clara at age 48 after the Lord told her to. They live in a basement flat with Clara's immobile, laconic father, Darcus Bowden. Hortense believes it is her and Clara's duty to proselytize in light of the upcoming end of the world on January 1, 1975, an event Hortense eagerly anticipates. It is such proselytizing, as well as Clara's being neither Irish nor Catholic that secures her unpopularity at her Catholic high school.

By knocking on his door—to spread the word of God—Clara meets Ryan Topps, her equally unpopular redheaded schoolmate. They begin dating; their relationship is based entirely on Clara "admiring Ryan's scooter, admiring Ryan's records, admiring Ryan." At first Clara is determined to save Ryan's soul. She befriends Ryan's friends, a group of hippies and freaks living in a communal squat, who find Clara's stories of the Jehovah's Witness faith wildly entertaining. As Clara's life becomes more interesting, she distances herself from her religion.

To Clara's surprise, Ryan begins visiting her mother regularly, eating up Hortense's Jamaican cooking as well as her religion. These visits lead to Ryan's gradual conversion. Ryan and Hortense team up against Clara, and both are determined to save her soul. When Ryan crashes his scooter—Clara riding on the back—Clara's teeth are knocked out, but Ryan is unharmed. Ryan takes this—not the fact that he wore a helmet and Clara did not—as evidence that he is one of God's chosen. On New Year's Eve, Clara leaves her mother and Ryan at home praying, choosing to attend a party at a commune instead. When midnight passes uneventfully, Clara is disappointed: she has spent her life waiting for the end of the world. This disappointment primes Clara to see Archie Jones, when he appears the following morning, as a savior capable of whisking her into a better life.

Analysis

Born into poverty in the midst of a natural disaster, Hortense Bowden craves security. Emigrating to England does not fulfill this drive, and Hortense continues to find security, belonging, and meaning in the apocalyptic promises of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Her faith is unshaken despite the devastation she experienced when prior predictions of apocalypse weren't fulfilled. The Jehovah's Witnesses originated in the 19th century in the United States; the religion that comprises Hortense's identity is neither Jamaican nor traditional.

With a similar longing for a better life and a child's impressionability, Clara Bowden takes up her mother's faith. Her relationship with Ryan Topps is Clara's first foray into constructing her own identity. Under the influence of an elderly Jamaican woman preaching a faith of American origins, Ryan Topps's identity shifts toward the religious. At the same time, Clara's identity shifts toward the secular, as she finds acceptance among a group of friends. Like Clara, these friends are outsiders; unlike Clara, whose Jamaican ethnicity and experience as an immigrant are inherent to her person, these friends have had the privilege of choosing their outsider status by rejecting the dominant norms of the culture of their birth.

Although Clara has rejected her mother's religion, her longing for salvation remains. She merely transfers the role of savior from God onto the unlikely person of Archie Jones. Significantly, the transfer occurs hours after Archie's "rebirth" following his failed suicide attempt in Part 1, Chapter 1. Clara and Archie, each seeking a better life, are thrust together by an improbable and convoluted series of events; they are bound by their shared expectation that the hours prior to their meeting would bring death.

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