White Teeth

White Teeth

For the novel White Teeth (1953), see Okot p'Bitek.

White Teeth is a 2000 novel by the British author Zadie Smith. It focuses on the later lives of two wartime friends - the Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and the Englishman Archie Jones, and their families in London. The book won multiple honors, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Plot summary

It's New Year's Day 1975 at the beginning of the novel, and we are introduced to Archie Jones, a 47 year old man whose disturbed Italian wife has just walked out on him. Archie is attempting to commit suicide by gassing himself in his car, nonetheless, a chance interruption causes him to change his mind. Filled with a fresh enthusiasm for life, Archie flips a coin and finds his way into the aftermath of a New Year's Eve party. There he meets the much-younger Clara, a Jamaican girl whose mother is a devout Jehovah's Witness. They are soon married to each other and have a daughter, Irie, who grows up to be intelligent but with low self-confidence.

Samad, on the other hand, who has emigrated to Britain after World War II, has married Alsana. Alsana is also much younger than he is, and their union is the product of a traditional arranged marriage, instead of one based on idealistic romance or personal choice. They have twin boys, Magid and Millat, who are the same age as Irie. The marriage is quite rocky, as their devotion to Islam in an English life is troublesome. Samad is continually tormented by what he sees as the effects of this cultural conflict upon his own moral character, and sends 10 year old Magid to Bangladesh in the hope that he will grow up properly under the teachings of Islam. From then on, the lives of the two boys follow very different paths. Ironically, Magid becomes an atheist and devotes his life to science (a grave disappointment to Samad). Whereas Millat, despite his earlier womanizing and drinking, eventually becomes an angry fundamentalist, and part of a Muslim brotherhood known as the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (or KEVIN).

The lives of the Jones and Iqbal families intertwine with that of the Chalfens, a Jewish-Catholic family of Oxford educated intellectuals. The father, Marcus Chalfen, is a straightforward but socially inept geneticist working on a controversial 'FutureMouse' project. The mother, Joyce Chalfen, is a part time housewife with an often entirely misguided desire to mother and 'heal' Millat. Although they wish to be thought of as intellectual liberals, the Chalfens often demonstrate complete cultural ignorance and a blindness to the changes happening in their own family.

Returned from Bangladesh, Magid works as Marcus' research assistant, while Millat is also befriended by the Chalfens. To some extent the family provides a safe haven as they (believe to) accept and understand the turbulent lives of both Magid and Millat. However this sympathy comes at the expense of their own son, Josh, whose own difficulties are ignored by his parents as he too begins to rebel against his background.

The strands of the narrative grow closer as Millat and KEVIN, Josh and a radical animal rights group (FATE), and Clara's mother (Hortense) and her religious connections all begin to oppose FutureMouse as an evil interference with their own beliefs and plan to stop it. Irie, who has been working for Marcus, briefly succeeds in her long hidden attraction to Millat but is rejected under his KEVIN inspired beliefs. Irie believes that Millat cannot love her, for he has always been 'the second son' both symbolically and literally; Millat was born two minutes after Magid. After losing her virginity to Millat, she makes Magid the 'second son' for a change.

Extraordinary consequences result as the seemingly divergent stories of the main characters coalesce in a stunning finale- the unveiling of FutureMouse, the revelatory actions of the warring groups, and of a long kept secret from the past of Samad and Archie.

Major themes

The story mixes pathos and humour, all the while illustrating the dilemmas of immigrants and second-generation immigrants as they are confronted by a new, and very different, society. The reader can determine certain qualities and negativities about different cultures while they are contrasted in a different culture. Middle- and working-class British cultures are also satirised through the characters of the Chalfens and Archie. In an interview with Amazon, Smith explains "I just wanted to show that there are communities that function well. There's sadness for the way tradition is fading away but I wanted to show people making an effort to understand each other, despite their cultural differences.

This book also delves into the concepts of human relationship. Archie and Samad remain best friends despite the failed relationships of their families and culture. Magid and Millat, on the other hand, do not approve of each other's lives and never become cordial brothers.

FutureMouse is a central character and plot motivator in White Teeth. FutureMouse’s life has been programmed and designed by Marcus Chalfen, but once born it escapes, seemingly to map out its own life. In this sense FutureMouse has a similar journey to other human characters in White Teeth, namely Magid, Millat and Irie.

Film adaptation

A television film adaptation of the novel was made in 2002. It was directed by Julian Jarrold and stars Om Puri as Samad, Phil Davis as Archie and James McAvoy as Josh.



  • Squires, Claire. White Teeth - A Reader's Guide. (New York: Continuum International, 2002).

See also

External links

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