Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 1 Chapter 4 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 1, Chapter 4 : Archie 1974, 1945 (Three Coming) | Summary

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Summary

Learning she is pregnant, Clara Jones asks the doctor what her child will look like. Clara tells her husband the doctor said, "anyting could happen." Archie excitedly shares the news of his unborn child with his coworkers. He is certain the child will have blue eyes. Their polite congratulations overlay their distaste for Archie's interracial marriage. His boss, Kelvin Hero, claiming not to be a "racialist," says Clara's presence at company functions makes others uncomfortable. After giving Archie some luncheon vouchers "left over from that raffle ... for the Biafrans," Kelvin Hero tells Archie he's been randomly selected for exclusion from an upcoming company dinner. Archie happily accepts the vouchers.

Alsana, carrying twin boys, and Clara, carrying a girl, begin a tentative friendship. They socialize with Neena, Alsana's "Niece-of-Shame," who is two years Alsana's junior. At Neena's suggestion, Clara has been reading feminist texts. Clara wants to name her daughter Irie. Alsana ridicules the Jamaican name, and says letting Archie name the baby will keep him quiet. Neena mockingly criticizes Alsana for her outdated concept of marriage: "It's 1975 ... It's not like back home. There's got to be communication between men and women in the West." Alsana responds that a marriage thrives on silence; her own arranged marriage worked best before she knew anything about Samad.

Neena says she'd consider abortion if she were expecting a boy. Alsana screams and Clara laughs hysterically. Although she lacks faith, Alsana invokes Allah and criticizes Neena's drive to understand the world. Alsana is interested not in truth but in "truth that can be lived with." Their husbands live in the past as much as the present: "Their roots will always be tangled. And roots get dug up." Their war service did not make them heroes: Samad received "a broken hand" and Archie "a funny leg," and both work unskilled jobs lacking in prestige. Clara admits Archie won't tell her the story behind the shrapnel in his leg.

Analysis

When Archie Jones tells his coworkers of his unborn but undoubtedly blue-eyed child, he appeals to his coworkers' racism by displaying his own racism. Aware that modern political correctness requires a disavowal of racism, Archie's coworkers and boss feign discomfort with racism while maintaining and promoting it through euphemisms, circumlocutions, and lies. Their discomfort is not with racism itself, but with being judged—correctly—as "racialist." Archie is confused rather than disturbed by Kelvin Hero's evasiveness, but his confusion disappears when he is given the luncheon vouchers. Absurdly, these free food tickets came from a fundraiser for the Biafrans, who endured starvation and genocide during the 1967–70 war over Biafra's secession from Nigeria. Archie, thinking only of a free lunch, doesn't question Mr. Hero's flimsy lie that he and Clara have been randomly, rather than deliberately, uninvited from the company dinner. Through his naïveté and lack of principle, Archie is complicit in the oppression of his own wife.

Neena and Alsana, despite being relatives and peers, have opposing responses to the uncertainty and complexity of postmodern life. While Neena searches for ultimate truth in a radical rejection of traditional norms, Alsana maintains that ultimate truth is not only unknowable, but undesirable: what is important is crafting a subjective worldview in which one can function with a minimum of suffering. For Alsana, close examination yields uncomfortable information that makes life harder. For Neena, truths emerge through dialogue and investigation. These truths compel one to reject traditional norms, a process that is necessary even if uncomfortable. Clara stands poised between them: ensconced in the traditional roles of marriage and impending motherhood, she embarks upon a tentative investigation of the radicalism Neena embodies.

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