Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 3 Chapter 13 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 3, Chapter 13 : Irie 1990, 1907 (The Root Canals of Hortense Bowden) | Summary



Clara Jones's mother, Hortense Bowden, is the daughter of an Englishman stationed in Jamaica, Captain Charlie Durham, and a Jamaican adolescent, Ambrosia Bowden. In 1906, after impregnating Ambrosia, Durham becomes her teacher. Ambrosia's mother, unaware of the pregnancy, encourages this. Besides teaching her "letters, numbers, the Bible, English history, [and] trigonometry," Durham teaches Ambrosia that her education has elevated her.

Durham leaves suddenly five months into Ambrosia's pregnancy, and Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard, who shares Durham's belief that "the natives required instruction, Christian faith, and moral guidance," becomes Ambrosia's teacher. The lessons stop when Ambrosia's pregnancy becomes obvious, and Ambrosia is sent to Mrs. Brenton, a Jehovah's Witness, who converts the Bowdens. On January 14, 1907, Sir Glenard takes Ambrosia into a church on the pretense of educating her. Inside the church, as he is molesting her, the earthquake strikes. Glenard is killed by a falling Madonna, and Ambrosia gives birth. In a publicity stunt, America sends aid to the British colony. The next day, Durham returns, finding Jamaica in shambles. He is denied permission to have Ambrosia accompany him off the island on the American boats, which the English governor turns away. Ambrosia, too absorbed in prayer to hear the news of Durham's return or the boats, keeps repeating what she had learned from the book of Revelation: "it soon come."


Clara Jones and Irie Jones's family line is a direct result of British colonialism in Jamaica. Just as Britain exploited Jamaica under the justification of the "white man's burden," Ambrosia is sexually exploited by the Englishmen Durham and Glenard, who hide this exploitation under the pretense that they are educating her. In modern times Ambrosia would be considered a victim of statutory rape and sexual abuse, but in 1907, she was considered a "black whore." White men impregnate her, then abandon her, deny her the continuance of her education, and molest her. In this difficult situation, Ambrosia clings to the imported religion a white woman offers her.

Like Clara, her granddaughter, who saw a substitute savior in Archie Jones after the world failed to end in 1974, Ambrosia hopes for either "the return of Christ or the return of Charlie Durham—the two men who could save her." The religion Ambrosia adopted in 1906 is passed to her daughter, Hortense, who passes it to Clara. Clara's rejection of this religion sets her up for her ill-suited marriage to Archie Jones—like Durham, an Englishman—who believes Clara should stick to traditional female roles. He, however, is characteristically ineffective in enforcing this belief. Clara, unlike Hortense and Ambrosia, has the good fortune of living in a world where she can access education without being sexually exploited by men, and she takes advantage of this to study feminist theory and imperialism. She pursues the postmodern secular ideal of liberation through education, rather than waiting, like her mother and grandmother, for the apocalyptic liberation promised by religion. Her family history has shaped Clara's life, but she refuses the limitations her forbearers had no choice but to accept.

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