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White Teeth | Themes

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The Presence of the Past

In White Teeth Zadie Smith explores the ways in which the past influences the present. As they attempt to negotiate modern life, many characters in White Teeth struggle with their personal, familial, and cultural pasts, while others reject the past as irrelevant. Ultimately, Smith constructs a world where the past, present, and future are inseparably related, and where one cannot fully escape the past despite attempts to disengage from it. As Alsana Iqbal says in Part 1, Chapter 4, "the past is made of more than words." Despite her own distaste for a continuous revisiting of the past, Alsana understands that Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones have "one leg in the present, one in the past," and therefore "their roots will always be tangled."

Samad Iqbal is obsessed with the legacy of his great-grandfather, Mangal Pande. In 1857 Pande shot the bullet that unleashed the first Indian uprising against British rule. In his own service in World War II, Samad attempts to live up to his ancestor's legacy by capturing the Nazi scientist Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. Samad convinces his comrade Archie Jones to shoot Perret. Lacking the resolve to kill, Archie fumbles the encounter and ends up being shot in the leg by Perret instead. This moment in 1945 has a profound bearing on the events of the 1990s, when Millat Iqbal and Irie Jones begin spending time at the home of geneticist Marcus Chalfen as a result of a punishment from their school, and Magid Iqbal returns from Bangladesh to become Marcus Chalfen's scientific assistant. The truth about the encounter between Archie Jones and Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret is not revealed until the book's final chapter, when it is also revealed that Marcus Chalfen is a student of Dr. Perret's. Because Archie failed to kill Perret in 1945, Perret went on to teach Marcus Chalfen, whose controversial work in genetics outrages three ideologically distinct groups during the 1990s: the radical Islamist group KEVIN, of which Millat Iqbal is a member; the radical animal rights group FATE, to which Joshua Chalfen belongs; and the Jehovah's Witnesses, among them Irie Jones's grandmother, Hortense Bowden. These opposing ideologies as well as all the characters in the story converge in a single moment, when Marcus Chalfen's FutureMouse project is revealed to the public on December 31, 1992. Millat Iqbal, himself attempting to outdo his ancestor Mangal Pande, tries to shoot Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, but in a moment that recalls the events of 1945, Archie Jones takes the bullet in the leg instead.

Smith thus demonstrates the inescapability of history. She also illustrates the magnetic pull the past can have on individuals. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal spend years discussing the events of 1857 and 1945 in O'Connell's Poolroom. Millat Iqbal grows disgusted, sitting on a bench in Trafalgar Square—where long ago Samad wrote their family name in blood—musing on how Henry Havelock, the British general who helped quell the Indian Mutiny of 1857, is celebrated with a statue in the center of the square. Millat Iqbal decides to "turn that history around" by shooting Chalfen at the FutureMouse Event (Part 4, Chapter 19). Irie Jones, having admired the Chalfen family tree dating back to 1675 and realizing her own family history is hidden from her, undergoes a shift in her identity when she begins to explore this history through the photographs, books, and other relevant objects she finds hidden in the cupboards of her grandmother's home. Irie, in Part 4, Chapter 19, eventually decides obsession with the past is "self-indulgent" and "dysfunctional" because "it doesn't fucking matter." Nonetheless, in an event that supports Smith's idea that the past and present form a circle, she returns to her ancestral home of Jamaica with her young daughter and her grandmother, Hortense, who was born there nearly a century earlier.

Fate

Many of the characters in White Teeth believe fate plays a significant, even primary, role in the events of their lives. While all the characters make choices, these choices are ultimately revealed to be highly mitigated by forces beyond their control, to the extent that the label "choice" almost seems a misnomer. Smith explores fate in religious, scientific, and personal contexts, putting forth a view of time, in which fate connects the past, present, and future into a single, inseparable circle.

Archie Jones continually places the responsibility for his life's decisions elsewhere, the flip of a coin being his preferred method. He doesn't believe life offers real choices; instead, he feels "his life had been picked out for him like a company Christmas present" (Part 1, Chapter 1). The book opens in 1974, with Archie deciding to commit suicide on the basis of a coin toss. When an irate butcher thwarts Archie's suicide attempt, the narrator notes, "The music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger moth's ... wings ... and a whole bunch of other stuff" have determined Archie will live. He also defers his decision to shoot Marc-Pierre Perret in 1945 to fate—in the form of a coin—but fate intervenes in a way Archie doesn't expect, when the coin lands behind him and his bending to retrieve it gives Perret the opportunity to shoot him in the leg. Like Archie, Clara Bowden's lover, Ryan Topps, nurses a romantic belief he will die young; his inherent fatalism is given institutional support in the Jehovah Witnesses' doctrine that the actions of men are meaningless in the face of the impending apocalypse. As they drive Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret off to his intended execution in 1945, Samad Iqbal tells Archie Jones, "the generations ... speak to each other;" therefore "life is not a line ... it's a circle." Fate, says Samad, in Part 1, Chapter 5, is something that cannot be predicted, but is always experienced.

Marcus Chalfen's FutureMouse is an explicit attempt to give humanity control of its own fate, and it is for this reason several ideologically distinct groups have strong objections to the work. The press release for FutureMouse, a mouse whose altered genetics express certain physical outcomes along a predictable timetable, asserts that the scientific understanding that has produced FutureMouse will allow humans to be "not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate" (Part 4, Chapter 16). The Islamist group KEVIN views this as a challenge to Allah—by arrogant Western man—who alone is responsible for controlling nature and fate. The Jehovah's Witnesses see FutureMouse's promise to control fate as a direct attack on their doctrine that the world will soon end with the coming of the savior, as well as an immoral distraction to souls as yet unsaved and in need of God's word. The unsubtly named animal rights group FATE sees Chalfen's intervention in the mouse's genetics as a cruel and unnatural act with the potential to affect the fate of life on earth in potentially horrifying ways. Millat Iqbal, who decides to act separately from KEVIN at the FutureMouse event, sees his decision to shoot Chalfen as an attack on the past subjugation as well as the present subjugation of the East by the West: Millat "believes we live in circles. His is a simple, neat fatalism. What goes around comes around." (Part 4, Chapter 19). Millat's understanding of fate is also likened to television: "an unstoppable narrative, written, produced, and directed by somebody else."

Traditional versus Modern Ways of Knowing

Zadie Smith explores the tensions between faith and science, old and new, and the traditional and the modern as ways of knowing and experiencing the world. In the context of the immigrant experience in late 20th-century England, these dichotomies are often aligned with another: East and West. The several generations portrayed in White Teeth interpret, embrace, and reject these dichotomies in different ways. These dualities are closely intertwined with issues of identity, and Smith portrays the ways identities shift as characters align and realign themselves within the framework of these dichotomies.

Both Hortense Bowden and Samad Iqbal, each a first-generation immigrant, rely on their religion to understand the complexities of modern life. While Samad's Islam has precolonial historical roots in his homeland of Bangladesh, the religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses Hortense practices was founded in the late 19th century in the United States, from which it spread to Jamaica, then a British colony. Nonetheless, Hortense and Samad both believe the will of man must submit to the will of God, a belief that causes them both to reject modern science, embodied by the work of Marcus Chalfen, as immoral. Both also reject certain aspects of the "mixing" that happens when immigrants assimilate into a new society. Hortense disowns her daughter, Clara, for marrying white Archie Jones, because she wants the family's "blackness" to be maintained. Samad ultimately rejects both his sons because neither fulfills his vision of what a traditional young Muslim man should be. The Islam Millat Iqbal embraces is a radical politicized version rejected by the clerical establishment. This "new" Islam has little in common with Samad's "old" Islam; Samad sees KEVIN as a group of thugs rather than a proper religious community. Magid, to Samad's horror and surprise, becomes an atheist and intellectual in the Western tradition, even though Samad sends him from "new" England to "old" Bangladesh to prevent this from happening.

The Chalfens, as liberal, white, intellectual Brits, profess an alignment with science and rationality, a strong preference for the modern, and a rejection of older ways of knowing. However, their treatment of Irie Jones and Millat Iqbal is not as rational or as enlightened as the Chalfens think. The Chalfens are enacting an old story in a modern context, taking it upon themselves to bear the so-called "white man's burden," of bringing civilization and culture to the unenlightened brown-skinned people of the world. In Part 4, Chapter 16, when Joyce Chalfen tells Irie Jones that Millat's troubles come from his undiagnosed ADHD, Irie scoffs: "Joyce, he hasn't got a disorder, he's just a Muslim." Joyce cannot understand Millat's struggle to come to terms with the complexities of his identity as a first-generation Muslim Brit except in terms of a modern psychiatric disorder. Irie sagely points out that Millat is wrestling with questions of history, faith, and modernity, indeed of identity—and psychiatric drugs are the wrong tool for such a struggle.

Questions for Themes

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