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White Teeth | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1: Archie 1974, 1945

In London on New Year's Day 1975, after a failed suicide attempt, middle-aged Archie Jones, who works for a printing house specializing in folded paper products, meets and soon marries 19-year-old Jamaican immigrant Clara Bowden. Clara has been raised as a Jehovah's Witness by her devout mother, Hortense, but has recently discarded her faith. Hortense disowns Clara for marrying a white man, and the newlyweds move into the Willesden Green neighborhood of London. Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi immigrant who is Archie's only friend, also moves into the same neighborhood with his young wife, Alsana. Later that year, Alsana gives birth to twin boys, Magid and Millat, and Clara gives birth to a daughter, Irie.

Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are members of the same small noncombat battalion at the end of World War II. After their tank breaks down in a Bulgarian village and the other members of the battalion are slaughtered, Archie and Samad strike up a friendship as they wait for help, not realizing the war has ended. Russian soldiers arrive, celebrating the war's end and on a final mission to capture a Nazi geneticist hiding in the village, Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. Wanting to live up to the legacy of his ancestor Mangal Pande, an Indian soldier who started a mutiny against British officers in 1857, Samad volunteers to lead the capture expedition. Samad insists it's Archie's duty as an Englishman to shoot Perret. Archie leads the doctor away; after a single gunshot, Archie returns with a wounded leg.

Part 2: Samad 1984, 1857

After his marriage, Samad, who works in his cousin's restaurant, becomes increasingly devoted to his Muslim faith. However, his inability to resist the temptations of the flesh makes him feel conflicted. In 1984 he has an affair with his sons' music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones, a white woman who is ignorant about but fascinated by Eastern culture. Samad, despairing that his sons are being corrupted by England, sends his more studious son, Magid, to Bangladesh, where Samad hopes he will absorb traditional culture. Alsana is distraught, and worried for her son's safety in Bangladesh, where deadly natural disasters are the norm. To punish Samad, Alsana decides to answer him only with "maybe" rather than "yes" or "no" until her son is returned to her. Their other son, Millat, is rebellious and troubled; he runs with a gang of other immigrant boys, is promiscuous and uses drugs, and has no respect for authority.

Archie and Samad are regular customers at O'Connell's, a men's-only establishment where they discuss the past endlessly. One of their primary arguments is whether Mangal Pande is a hero and freedom fighter, as Samad believes, or a fool and coward, as Archie was taught in school. Samad's point of view is vindicated at last, when he finds an account of Pande's heroism in a book by an Indian historian.

Part 3: Irie 1990, 1907

At age 15 Irie Jones feels ashamed of her Jamaican features so she tries to have her hair dyed and chemically straightened, which results in it falling out. Then she decides to go to a salon to have extensions of straight, Indian hair put in. She has a crush on Millat Iqbal and hopes he will reward her with romantic attention if she has straight hair. At the Iqbal house, Alsana's lesbian feminist niece, Neena, chastises Irie for getting rid of her beautiful natural hair. Realizing how ridiculous she looks, Irie pulls out her extensions in disgust. Samad Iqbal is in despair after Magid writes him of his intentions to become a lawyer to help the East attain Western-style progress.

Irie, Millat, and British Joshua Chalfen, are caught with a joint at school. As punishment, Irie and Millat are sentenced to regular "study groups" at Joshua's house. Joshua's mother, Joyce, is a self-proclaimed liberal feminist and writer of gardening books. His father, Marcus, is a geneticist working on a project that involves the manipulation of mouse DNA to induce predictable cancers in the mouse along a predictable timeline. Marcus hires Irie to be his secretary, and Joyce becomes obsessed with "fixing" troubled Millat. The Iqbals and the Joneses are suspicious of the Chalfens and resent the time their children spend at the Chalfen house.

In 1906 Jamaican teenager Ambrosia Bowden, Irie Jones's great grandmother, becomes pregnant by her tutor, an Englishman. Ambrosia becomes a devout Jehovah's Witness after her lover abandons her. On January 14, 1907, another of her English tutors leads pregnant Ambrosia into a church, where he molests her. Just then, in an example of magical realism, a massive earthquake strikes, killing the Englishman and causing Ambrosia to give birth to Hortense, Irie's grandmother.

In 1991 Magid Iqbal and Marcus Chalfen become pen pals. Marcus is taken by Magid's intellect. Irie decides to follow Marcus's suggestion that she become a dentist. Millat has joined the radical Islamist group KEVIN but struggles to be a good Muslim. When Irie accidentally discovers that her mother wears false teeth, she feels betrayed. Clara never told Irie her top teeth were knocked out in a motorcycle accident when she was a teenager. Frustrated by the feeling her parents have lied to her repeatedly and concealed the truth about her family's history, Irie goes to live with her grandmother.

Hortense Bowden lives with Ryan Topps, who was Clara's boyfriend when she was a teenager; they are both devout Jehovah's Witnesses, obsessed with the coming apocalypse. Irie, amused by her grandmother's religion, also rejects the influences of the Chalfens as she learns about her family history through the photographs and other memorabilia she finds at Hortense's house. Joshua Chalfen rejects his family as well and joins the radical animal rights group FATE. Samad visits Hortense's flat, despairing over the paths his sons have taken: Millat has disappeared with KEVIN, and the Chalfens are paying for Magid to return and study law. Ryan Topps informs Hortense the apocalypse will come before the end of the century. Irie is overjoyed to accept Hortense's invitation to join her in Jamaica for the end of the world.

Part 4: Magid, Millat, and Marcus 1992, 1999

Marcus Chalfen's work has become the subject of public outrage. Returning to England, Magid lives with the Chalfens and works as Marcus's assistant. FutureMouse will be publicly displayed for seven years, beginning with a presentation on December 31, 1992.

The Iqbals and the Joneses are suspicious of Magid's odd, formal ways, and Millat refuses to see him. Joyce Chalfen and Alsana Iqbal agree the twins must talk, and the reunion is planned. Irie and Millat have unplanned sex, but Millat is horrified afterward. Irie believes Millat doesn't love her because he feels inadequate, having been born two minutes after Magid. To make Magid "the second son for once," Irie seduces Magid. During their reunion, the twins argue about the past and their differing ideologies. Each refuses to budge from his position.

KEVIN declares "ideological warfare" against Marcus, Magid, and FutureMouse. Millat becomes disgusted when KEVIN decides to make a peaceful rather than a violent intervention at the FutureMouse event. Millat decides to mount his own attack on Chalfen, the symbol of Western domination. FATE is also planning to sabotage the event. The Jehovah's Witnesses will attend to deliver their message of salvation outside the venue. Irie, newly pregnant, has accepted the fact that she'll never know which of the twins is the father.

At the FutureMouse event, Marcus Chalfen introduces his mentor, Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. Archie and Samad both recognize him. Samad, who believed for 50 years that Archie killed Perret, is shocked and delighted by Archie's unexpected complexity. Archie, realizing Millat is pulling out a gun, instinctively steps into the bullet's path. The narrative flashes back to recount the details of the 1945 encounter between Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret and Archie. Archie, unable to pull the trigger on Perret, flipped a coin to see whether Perret would live or die. While Archie retrieved the flipped coin, Perret shot Archie in the leg with Archie's own gun. Now, in 1992, Archie's leg takes a second bullet meant for Perret. Archie falls and breaks the case containing FutureMouse; the mouse escapes.

The court case is dismissed because of unreliable evidence, complicated by the twins' physical similarity; both are sentenced to community service. On New Year's Eve 1999 Irie is in Jamaica with her daughter, Hortense, and Joshua Chalfen, who has become her lover. The little girl believes Magid and Millat are her uncles. Clara, Archie, Samad, and Alsana celebrate the New Year at O'Connell's, which is now open to women.

White Teeth Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones serve together in World War II.

Rising Action

2 Archie Jones is wounded when he attempts to kill Dr. Perret.

3 Having failed at suicide, Archie Jones marries Clara Bowden.

4 Clara Jones has a daughter; Alsana Iqbal has twin sons.

5 Samad Iqbal sends Magid Iqbal to live in Bangladesh.

6 Millat Iqbal and Irie Jones meet the Chalfens.

7 Millat Iqbal joins the radical Islamist group KEVIN.

8 Irie Jones begins to uncover her family history.

9 Magid Iqbal becomes Marcus Chalfen's assistant.

10 Irie Jones is pregnant by either Magid or Millat.

Climax

11 Archie Jones takes the bullet meant for Dr. Perret.

Falling Action

12 The FutureMouse escapes when Archie falls.

13 The resulting court case is dismissed by a frustrated judge.

14 Magid and Millat Iqbal complete community service.

Resolution

15 Irie Jones goes to Jamaica; O'Connell's admits women.

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