Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 2 Chapter 7 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 2, Chapter 7 : Samad 1984, 1857 (Molars) | Summary



In September 1984 Irie Jones (Clara and Archie's daughter) and the Iqbal twins, Millat and Magid, all 10 years old, take food to an elderly man, Mr. J.P. Hamilton, for their school's Harvest Festival. Hamilton assumes—basing his assumption on the children's skin color—they either want to rob him or sell him something, so he tries to send them away. He does finally let the children in but says he can't eat the food they brought him because of his false teeth. He lectures the children on proper dental hygiene and remarks that when he was in the army in the Congo, the "nigger[s]" were identified by "the whiteness of [their] teeth ... And they died because of it." When the twins say their father was in the British army, Hamilton responds they are mistaken: "there were certainly no wogs as I remember." "Fibs will rot your teeth," he says. He discusses the third molars—the wisdom teeth—which cause infection if too large and "are passed down by the father." He doesn't notice the children have fled.

Meanwhile, Samad Iqbal and Poppy Burt-Jones meet secretly in the rough neighborhood of Harlesden, where Poppy lives. On his way Samad secures an alibi by visiting his cousin's gossipy wife, Zinat Mahal. Poppy and Samad encounter Mad Mary, an insane homeless woman. Mad Mary approaches and spits in Samad's face. She begins ranting against "BLACK MAN," and Samad senses she knows he is an outsider, like she is. He speaks to her gently of tolerance and the relief of the Day of Resurrection spoken of by the prophet Mohammed. He has a vision of Mangal Pande, "fighting against the new, holding on to tradition." They walk away from Mad Mary, and Samad says he wants to spend the night with Poppy. She gives him a toothbrush. Just then, he sees his sons waving at him.


In this chapter Smith elaborates on the book's primary symbol, teeth, mostly through J.P. Hamilton's interactions with the children. Teeth are like life itself, precious because they are not infinitely replenished. Teeth can both help and harm a person. They can even determine a person's destiny, as in the Congo, when the bright white teeth of the Congolese made them easy targets for British guns. Teeth are also a source of wisdom, which is inherited. This is a metaphor: the wisdom teeth, like wisdom, are passed down through the generations. If a person is unable to accommodate their wisdom teeth because of a small mouth, the result is infection. Metaphorically, if a person isn't strong enough to incorporate the lessons of the past into their own identity, the past can destroy them. While teeth can determine one's destiny, their care is a mundane, daily ritual, and Poppy's gift of a toothbrush signifies her acceptance of Samad as her lover.

Unlike the English people of Archie's generation, who attempt to hide their racism from those who may find it offensive, the elderly J.P. Hamilton is entirely insensitive to his audience of three nonwhite children. His lecture on teeth, sprinkled with racist epithets like "nigger" and "wog," terrifies them, and he insults them by accusing them of lying about their own history. By portraying several generations (Mr. Hamilton's, Archie and Samad's, Clara and Alsana's, and the children's), Smith explores the ways racist attitudes shift in expression and intensity over time.

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