Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 4 Chapter 20 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 4, Chapter 20 : Magid, Millat, and Marcus 1992, 1999 (Of Mice and Memory) | Summary



Toward the end of the FutureMouse event, Marcus Chalfen introduces his mentor, Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. Archie and Samad recognize Perret by his bloody tears. Samad realizes Archie is more complex than he thought, having lied to him for 50 years. He begins cursing affectionately at Archie in Bengali. Archie is focused on Millat Iqbal, who is "reaching like Pande." Instinctively, Archie positions himself between Millat and his target.

The narration shifts to 1945. Archie, drunk and apologetic, points a loaded gun at Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, who buys time by asking for a cigarette. He attempts to use philosophical arguments to convince Archie to spare his life; this confuses Archie but wears down his already shaky resolve. Archie decides to flip a coin: heads, and Perret dies; tails, and he lives. Archie lays down his gun to toss the coin, which lands behind him. As he turns to retrieve it, Perret shoots him in the leg. Archie berates Perret: "For fuckssake, why did you do that? ... It's tails. See? It's tails. Look."

The narration returns to 1992. Archie takes Millat's bullet, meant for Perret, in the thigh. His fall breaks the glass box containing FutureMouse. Archie watches the mouse's escape with approval, thinking, "Go on my son!"

The resulting court case is dismissed. Magid and Millat serve their community service sentence as gardeners at a new public park overseen by Joyce Chalfen.

Irie, her daughter, her lover Joshua Chalfen, and Hortense Bowden are in Jamaica for New Year's Eve 1999. The little girl knows Magid and Millat as uncles. That same evening finds Samad, Alsana, Clara, and Archie playing cards together at O'Connell's, which has finally opened its doors to women.


KEVIN and FATE spend months debating the best course of action and agonizing over their elaborate plans for disrupting the event. The course of the evening, however, is decided by the independent actions of two men. Each man's action relates to the past: Millat wants to succeed where Mangal Pande failed, so he shoots his gun at Perret; Archie is somehow destined to spare Perret's life twice. At the end of World War II, Archie spared Perret's life unintentionally, because of his indecision and the improbable trajectory of the coin he flips. This time, Archie shows no indecision and flips no coin. Instead, he moves instinctively, rather than out of deliberation. By his instantaneous decision to step into the bullet's path, he fulfills the philosopher Sartre's injunction that Perret quoted to him in 1945: by his choice, he makes himself who he is. In midlife, Archie reveals himself to be capable of decisiveness, of bravery, and of self-sacrifice.

The reader must reconsider the character of Archie Jones. His friends and family, as well as Archie himself, have always seen him as an indecisive follower, a "nobody," a simple and mediocre man—certainly, not the type of person to influence history. But in his two interactions with Perret, in 1945 and in 1992, Archie has a profound, if unintended, effect on history as well as on the lives of all the characters. In neither situation does Archie seek to fulfill a legacy, attain glory, or define his identity through his actions—unlike Samad and Millat, who struggle greatly with these things. Archie is not a deep thinker. But his daughter, Irie, is, and through her intellectual and emotional struggle she comes to the same conclusion about life as Archie, although his understanding is implicit rather than the result of extensive self-inquiry: life must be lived in the present, not the past.

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