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White Teeth | Symbols



Roots symbolize the intricate relationship between the past and the present. In Part 1, Chapter 5 Samad Iqbal seizes the chance to attain a glory approaching that of his ancestor Mangal Pande by pretending to be a captain and volunteering to lead the expedition to capture the Nazi scientist Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. As he leads the charge, his progress is hampered by the upturned roots of trees, which "shot up impotently and languished in the air." In order to make progress, the roots must be "hacked away with the bayonets of the Russian guns." These roots literally impede Samad's forward charge, symbolizing the way the present, and therefore the future, are determined by the past. Samad considers roots unequivocally good: "tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good ... untainted principles" (Part 2, Chapter 8).

However, as the narrator points out in Part 2, Chapter 7, just because something is deep-rooted doesn't necessarily mean it is useful or beneficial: "weeds too have tubers." Roots provide an anchor in the face of the complexities of modern life, but roots have an almost physical power extending beyond the narratives—such as family stories—that describe familial roots; and this can complicate the present. As Alsana Iqbal points out, because Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are so identified with their roots, they are subject to having their roots dug up, just as the birds in her garden dig up her plants. Indeed, the entire narrative centers on this digging up of roots. It is an excavation that brings pain and disappointment, because however much the present is rooted in the past, the present is never exactly like the past—as Samad finds out when his son Magid falls under the influence of Western thought despite being sent back to his roots in Bangladesh.

Coin Toss

Archie Jones has trouble making decisions, so he continually defers even his most important decisions to chance by allowing them to be decided by coin toss. However, fate is never as simple as heads or tails, as Archie's experience bears out time and again. Faced with the task of shooting the captured Nazi scientist Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret in 1945, Archie, unable to make the choice to take a man's life, decides to flip a coin. This simple coin toss produces an unexpectedly complex outcome when the coin improbably flies behind Archie. As he bends back to retrieve it, he gives Perret the opportunity to pick up Archie's gun and shoot him in the leg. The fact that Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret overstepped the coin's authority is more annoying to Archie than the leg wound he receives, and even more so since the coin landing on tails meant he wouldn't have shot Perret anyway. Twenty years later, when Archie is driven by a sense of detachment and meaninglessness to consider suicide, he again flips a coin. The result of the coin toss leads Archie to attempt suicide by breathing in exhaust from his car. Again, however, fate appears in the form of an irate butcher who intervenes only because Archie is parked in a no-parking zone in front of his shop—and so Archie lives.

In 1992 when Samad Iqbal takes Magid Iqbal to O'Connell's to convince him to meet with his estranged brother, Magid asks Archie whether he thinks the meeting is a good idea. Archie flips a coin, and what happens is symbolically reminiscent of the coin toss in 1945: the coin flies behind Archie and lands, improbably, in the coin slot of a pinball machine. The game turns on, and the ball "beg[ins] its chaotic, noisy course around a labyrinth." Soon, however, with "no one to direct it," the game ends (Part 4, Chapter 17). Smith draws a metaphorical correlation between life and a pinball game set off by an improbable coin toss: no matter how much we may try to simplify our lives by deferring our choices to randomness or chance, as Archie tries to do by flipping coins, fate ultimately drives our experience. Despite the primacy of fate, we must still make choices—even if those choices are to defer from conscious choice by means of a coin toss. Fate has a relentless tendency to create complexity within situations that seem, on the surface, to be simple matters of heads/tails, yes/no, either/or.


FutureMouse is the outcome of scientist Marcus Chalfen's work with genetics. Chalfen alters the mouse's genome so the mouse expresses predictable physical traits along a predictable timeline. While Chalfen claims he intends his discoveries to be used in medicine to enhance the quality of life, others see FutureMouse as a perversion of the natural order and another example of the way the Western mind seeks to control and subjugate not only nature, but non-Western people and their cultures. In the name of scientific progress, Chalfen has "colonized" the mouse's genome, forcing it to do his bidding—just as Britain colonized India and Jamaica, among many other places, in the name of progress. As such, FutureMouse is condemned by members of the public who see in the science the potential for horrifying abuses of power, such as the young politics student who tells Marcus in the airport in Part 4, Chapter 16, a person must be "seriously naive if you don't think the West intend to use this shit in the East, on the Arabs."

Western thought, with its logocentrism based on a fixed and external truth and its love of control, has produced with FutureMouse a type of unprecedented biological predictability, in which Magid Iqbal admires "certainty in its purest form," which he, an atheist, considers to be the essence of what is called God (Part 4, Chapter 18). Indeed, FutureMouse draws the ire of the radical Islamist group KEVIN as well as the Jehovah's Witnesses, who see science as an affront to God's will, which they consider to be the proper authority over nature. To the religious mind, this is the essence of evil itself—expressed in Ryan Topp's dream in which Marcus Chalfen appears as "a tiny satanic mouse" (Part 4, Chapter 19). FutureMouse symbolizes the fundamental conflict between Eastern and Western, traditional and modern, and religious and scientific ways of knowing. It symbolizes the endless Western drive for more power and control, and the condemnation of this drive by those who are traditionally subjugated.


Teeth, the novel's titular symbol, symbolize the power of identity. Teeth have roots, just as identity is rooted in the past and in one's traditional culture. They are also capable of rotting, either from the root or the exposed portion. This potential for rot is symbolic of the ways immigrants' quests for identity can backfire, causing harm to the self. The characters in the book often attempt to alter their identities and appearances to achieve acceptance within the dominant culture, and the novel explores the ways such alterations—or lack thereof—can create conflict and suffering for individuals.

Modern British cultural norms demand a perfect set of white teeth, such as those achieved by Archie Jones's racist boss, Kelvin Hero, whose "double row of pearly whites ... owed more to expensive dentistry than to regular brushing" (Part 1, Chapter 4). Caring for one's teeth and even altering them by means of cosmetic dentistry symbolize the ways individuals attempt to achieve these norms. Samad Iqbal shows his contempt for British culture when he insults his son Magid, who has aligned himself with Western ways of knowing, by calling him "Mr. White-trousered Englishman with his stiff-upper-lip and his big white teeth" (Part 4, Chapter 17).

As a teenager, Clara Bowden's entire top row of teeth are knocked out during a moped accident. When Archie Jones first meets her on New Year's Day 1975, this lack of teeth is "possibly her one imperfection." This loss of teeth and her as yet unsubdued Jamaican accent make her voice sound quite peculiar, but Clara is confident in her unique identity: she tells Archie, "come de end of de world, d'Lord won't mind if I have no toofs" (Part 1, Chapter 1). However, she begins wearing a perfect set of false teeth on the day of her wedding to British Archie; she also begins to work on eliminating any traces of her Jamaican accent (Part 1, Chapter 3). This concession to British dental norms is symbolic of Clara's willing assimilation into British culture.

Clara's assimilation appears to her teenaged daughter, Irie Jones, as a deliberate attempt to obscure their familial roots. When Irie realizes her mother wears false teeth—a realization that happens accidentally, when Irie knocks over the glass containing the dentures in Clara's room and the teeth literally bite down on Irie's flesh—she reads this falsification as a deliberate betrayal by her mother and an intentional attempt to erase the familial past Irie longs to know. For Irie, the false teeth are "yet another item in a long list of parental hypocrisies and untruths;" they represent "stories ... never ... told" and "histories ... never entirely uncovered" (Part 3, Chapter 14). The discovery of her mother's false teeth compels Irie to leave her parents' home and take up residence at her grandmother's house, where she begins unearthing her family past in the photographs and other artifacts hidden in her grandmother's cupboards—including a portrait of Clara before her false teeth, "grinning maniacally, the true horror of the teeth revealed" (Part 3, Chapter 15). Irie's decision to become a dentist is symbolic of her drive to uncover and nurture authenticity, past and present.


Twins symbolize the unpredictable, paradoxical, and often contradictory outcomes of the interaction between the forces of nature (biology, genetics, and here, even familial or cultural roots) and nurture (the experiences that shape an individual throughout a lifespan). In her treatment of the symbol of twins, Smith puts forth the idea that the fate that determines lives has very little to do with biology or even childhood upbringing—it is much more complicated. Although Magid and Millat Iqbal are twins, born of a single split ovum, they are nothing alike. When the boys are young, this confounds the adults around them—how could Magid be so studious and intelligent, and Millat be such a rowdy troublemaker? Despite sharing the same genetic code, the same parents, and the same cultural roots, Magid and Millat are very different individuals who travel down divergent paths in life.

While the common interpretation of being twinned brings up ideas of similarity, Magid wisely points out that the word twin indicates separation as much as it does unity, asking Irie Jones, "Do you understand the nature of twins? Do you understand the meaning of the word cleave?" To cleave means both "to split" as well as "to adhere firmly and closely." The word cleave encapsulates the paradox of twins: Magid and Millat understand each other without communicating, despite their ideological and lifestyle differences; however, this doesn't mean they will cling together. Their destiny is to split from each other, rather than to remain in the unity from which they began. Marcus Chalfen touches on this concept when he notes that twins produced by a randomly split ovum may be less similar than individuals who are very different from each other in age, background, and life experience: he feels he and Magid are "twinned like each side of an equation: logically, essentially, inevitably" (Part 4, Chapter 16).

However, the paradox of twins is never erased; it always remains a paradox, and certain circumstances bring out the differences between Magid and Millat while other circumstances emphasize their similarity. After Millat attempts to kill Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret at the FutureMouse exhibition, the resulting court case is dismissed, in part because of the unreliability of "the eyewitness statements that identified Magid as many times as Millat" as the shooter. Both brothers, therefore, share the burden of completing the community service the judge assigns. Similarly, when Irie becomes pregnant after sleeping with both Magid and Millat, she realizes that because they have the same genetic material, she will never be able to know which is the father of her daughter. Because of this uncertainty, she treats both as her daughter's uncles: they are "Bad Uncle Millat and Good Uncle Magid" (Part 4, Chapter 20).

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