White Teeth Summary
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The novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith, published in 2000 and the winner of multiple awards, is set in London and follows the friendship of two friends, a Bangladeshi named Samad Iqbal and Englishman, Archie Jones, and their respective families.
The book begins on New Year’s Day, 1975, with Jones attempting to kill himself after his wife walks out on him. He’s interrupted and finds a new enthusiasm for life. A little while later, he goes to a party, where he meets the Jamaican Clara Bowden. At that point, Bowden was into another person, Ryan Topps, but that fizzles out after Topps becomes a Jehovah’s Witness, the same religion as Bowden’s very devout mother. Not long after their meeting, Jones and Bowden are married and have a daughter, Irie, who turns into a smart girl who lacks confidence.
Next, you’re introduced to Jones’s best friend, Iqbal, whom he met while on a tank crew together in the War, even though they missed out on participating in any direct action. You learn the Iqbal immigrated to England after the war, has an arranged marriage with a woman named Alsana, and works as a waiter in a curry house, though his real obsession is learning about his great-grandfather, who was said to be involved in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The two have two children, Magid and Millat, who happen to be the same age as Jones’s daughter, Irie. Living in English society presents multiple problems for Iqbal, as he engages in multiple behaviors—from drinking to having an affair—that go against his Muslim faith.
In an attempt to feel more connected to his faith, Iqbal sends Magid to Bangladesh to grow up and closely follow Islam. Instead, he devotes his life to science, shunning religion. Millat’s life takes a different track, and he chooses to devote himself to a militant Muslim organization known as the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, KEVIN for short.
A third family, the Chalfens, is introduced. The father, Marcus, is a geneticist working with mice and cancer (a project known as FutureMouse), and the mother, Joyce, is horticulturist who thinks she can cure Millat of his militant tendencies. While the Chalfens offer help and a haven of sorts for Irie and Iqbal’s two boys, the Chalfen elders ignore their own son, Joshua, who eventually joins a group, Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation (FATE), in defiance of his parents.
The connections between the three families become even more intertwined, as Magid and Irie both work for Marcus in different capacities. It’s while working for Marcus that Irie reveals her love for Millat, who spurns her after a brief tryst because of his work with KEVIN. She then sleeps with Magid and gets pregnant, though because the two are identical twins, she does not know who the father is.
Soon after, a protest is planned against the FutureMouse project, which brings KEVIN, FATE, and Clara Bowden’s mother Hortense and her religion all into the same space. It’s at this protest that Iqbal realizes one of the scientists on the FutureMouse team is a former Nazi that Jones could’ve but didn’t kill. It’s at this moment, too, that Millat arrives with a gun and Jones gets between Millat and his father, taking a bullet in the leg. The centerpiece of the project, the mouse, is set free after it’s cage falls.
The novel ends by showing what happens to all the characters in a way similar to a television montage. The brothers both do community service for the crime, Joshua and Irie head to Jamaica, and Iqbal and Jones, who spend a good deal of time in O’Connell’s pub, are finally allowed to bring their wives, as it’s opened up to women for the first time ever.
There are a number of themes present in White Teeth. First, culture and immigration play a large role. The three families all highlight different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, and these play off each other throughout the novel. Next, fundamentalism is another major theme, which comes to a head at the protest when the three major groups seen in the book—KEVIN,FATE, and religion (here represented by Jehovah’s Witnesses)—all come together.
Teeth, as referenced in the title, also play a role. From the fact that the characters’ teeth are white (a way of showing that no matter one’s skin color, everyone shares similarities) to Clara losing hers in an accident to Irie deciding to become a dentist, the imagery is a recurrent one for Smith in the novel.
Essay Topic 1
What is the meaning and significance of the phrases "to the pure all things are pure" and "can't say fairer than that"?
Essay Topic 2
How would the story have been different if Millat had gone to Pakistan and Magid had stayed in England?
Essay Topic 3
Magid and Millat Iqbal are close as children and are then separated. What is the connection between them? Is it different than that of non-twin siblings? How?
Essay Topic 4
What makes the Chalfen home so attractive to Millat and Irie? Is it the same thing, or are there different reasons?
Essay Topic 5
How does FutureMouse and Joyce Chalfen's gardening parallel the relationship that Joyce and Marcus develop with Millat and Irie?
Essay Topic 6
One of the main themes in "White Teeth" is that of identity. Choose two main characters and compare the roots of their identities: how do they identify themselves...
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