Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 1 Chapter 5 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 1, Chapter 5 : Archie 1974, 1945 (The Root Canals of Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal) | Summary



Teenaged Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal meet in April 1945, near the end of World War II. Their five-man division, the "Buggered Battalion," is tasked with maintaining infrastructure. Samad claims his hand, crippled when a "bastard fool" Sikh's gun discharged accidentally, is all that prevents him from attaining the heroism of his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, who "shot the first hateful pigfat-smeared bullet" of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

On May 6 their tank breaks down in a Bulgarian village. Archie and Samad return from town to find the other members of their division dead. Samad teaches Archie to fix their broken radio. Unaware the war ended on May 8, they wait for help. Despite each man's feeling that the other's culture is bizarre, a tentative friendship develops. Samad cements their friendship by telling Archie the story of Mangal Pande, whom Archie calls a hero. Moved, Samad urges Archie to reject stereotypes he may encounter about Indians, whose staggering diversity defies categorization. Samad tells Archie, "You must live life with the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are creatures of consequence."

When Russian soldiers arrive the next day to capture a Nazi hiding in a nearby house, Samad and Archie realize the war is over. Seizing a final chance to attain glory, Samad leads the capture expedition. Mid-charge, Samad becomes suicidal: he is a cripple and a deserter who will belong nowhere after the war. Archie reminds Samad he now has a chance to be a hero. They find the sickly, young French scientist Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, who worked for the Nazis on their euthanasia and sterilization programs, in the house, painting and crying tears of blood. Winning custody of Dr. Perret in a poker game, Samad tells Archie their failure to fight evil during the war requires them to kill Perret, who tries to do Allah's job by breeding and destroying life according to his own specifications. Since the war is England's fight, not India's, the duty is Archie's—unless Archie is the coward he seems. Archie leads the scientist into the darkness at gunpoint. A shot is fired, and Archie returns "bleeding and limping."


The wartime experiences of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal involve a painful exposure of their cultural and personal roots, a process Smith metaphorically likens to the root canal of a tooth in the chapter's title. The improbable friendship is a collision between the culture of the colonizer and the colonized, but in an example of situational irony their relationship inverts the expected power dynamic. Samad leads; Archie follows. Samad has a heroic ancestor, a capacity for philosophical thought, and the knowledge to fix the radio—all of which Archie lacks. Samad defies and seeks to overturn the stereotypes placed upon him.

Samad is guided by the legacy of his ancestor Mangal Pande, a sepoy (soldier) in Britain's army remembered in India as a hero for instigating an uprising against British officers. The British armed the sepoys with rifles whose cartridges, lubricated with pig or cow fat, had to be bitten open prior to loading. The rebellion of these Hindu and Muslim soldiers, whose religions prohibit the ingestion of these animals, was in protest of this specific disregard of their cultures and of British colonialism in India. Archie has no ties to his ancestral past and nothing to live up to; his self-esteem springs from his genetic and cultural Britishness. His family is "nobody" but is "proud all the same" of being "good honest English stock." Both Archie and Samad are fighting Britain's war, but only Samad is in the contradictory position of serving the country that subjugated his people.

The narrator, at the end of the chapter, does not yet reveal the exact nature of the encounter between Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret and Archie, although it is clear that the single gunshot has, in another example of situational irony, struck Archie rather than Perret. The significance of this incident, hidden until much later, supports Samad's conviction that even the smallest actions have consequences, which reverberate through time.

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