79 pages 2 hours read

Zadie Smith

White Teeth

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

White Teeth is an award-winning novel by Zadie Smith, published in 2000. The novel, which was developed into a four-part miniseries for British audiences in 2002, follows two men from different backgrounds who meet and become friends during World War II.

Plot Summary

White Teeth opens on New Year’s Day, 1975, with the attempted suicide of a middle-aged Englishman named Archie Jones. Following his failed marriage, and in despairing of his generally mundane existence, Archie flipped a coin and decided to take his life. His attempt is interrupted, however, and Archie experiences a change of heart. Elated by the prospect of a second chance, Archie makes his way to an “End of the World” party staged by a hippie commune. Here, he meets and falls in love with a 19-year-old Jamaican immigrant named Clara Bowden.

A flashback shows that Clara’s mother, Hortense, is a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and Clara was raised in anticipation of the coming apocalypse. As a teenager, Clara rebelled against her childhood faith and began dating a boy named Ryan Topps, who introduced her to the commune crowd. When Ryan converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, the couple broke up. Feeling adrift, Clara marries Archie just six weeks after they meet.

Archie is good friends with a Bangladeshi immigrant named Samad Iqbal, who is also recently married to a young woman—Alsana Begum. Clara and Alsana become friends as a “rearguard action against their husbands’ friendship” (63), which dates back to 1945. Archie and Samad—then 17 and 18, respectively—were stationed together in a tank patrolling Eastern Europe. Through a series of accidents, Samad and Archie ended up stranded and alone near a small Bulgarian village just as the war in Europe was ending. The situation was “strange enough for an Iqbal and a Jones to strike up a friendship” (79) and Archie earned Samad’s respect by apparently executing a Nazi scientist named Dr. Perret living in the area.

The narrative jumps to 1984. The Joneses have a daughter named Irie, and the Iqbals have twin boys, Magid and Millat. At a school event, Samad meets and becomes infatuated with the children’s music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. The two have a brief affair, which Samad—increasingly plagued by feelings of religious guilt—eventually ends. The episode convinces Samad that Western society is corrupting him and his family. Inspired in part by his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, whom Samad insists was a nationalist hero, Samad decides to safeguard his culture and heritage by sending Magid to be raised in Bangladesh. Afterward, Samad becomes increasingly dismissive of Millat, who was never as studious as his brother and begins smoking, sleeping around, and getting into trouble.

Meanwhile, Irie’s childhood interest in Magid shifts to his brother, but Millat never shows any romantic interest in her, exclusively dating white girls. This exacerbates Irie’s insecurity over her heritage and appearance.

One day in 1990, Irie, Millat, and a student named Joshua Chalfen are caught up in a drug sweep at their school. In lieu of punishment, the headmaster sends Irie and Millat to study math and science at the Chalfens’; Joshua himself is good at both subjects, and his father, Marcus, is a geneticist. Irie is immediately impressed by the Chalfen family, aspiring to both their intellectualism and their middle-class lifestyle. She eventually begins doing secretarial work for Marcus, whose experiments focus on genetically engineering mice in the hopes of one day curing human diseases.

Millat, meanwhile, attracts the attention of Marcus’s wife Joyce—a gardening expert who “need[s] to be needed” (262) and devotes herself to reforming Millat. At the same time, Millat is increasingly falling under the influence of an Islamic fundamentalist group called KEVIN, and the attention Joyce lavishes on him frustrates her own son so much that Josh begins spending time with an extremist animal rights group called FATE. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Marcus and Magid begin corresponding via letters, bonding over their shared commitment to rationality and order. Marcus’s interest in Irie is correspondingly diminished, and Irie resigns herself to his suggestion that she study dentistry.

In 1992, Magid returns from Bangladesh fully Westernized in his attitudes and ideas. This disgusts Samad but delights Marcus, who plans to pay for Magid to study law so he can handle the legalities of Marcus’s research. Meanwhile, Magid helps Marcus handle the press surrounding “FutureMouse”—a mouse Marcus genetically programmed to develop specific diseases at specific times. Concerned that Magid and Millat are too estranged from one another, Joyce enlists Irie to help arrange a meeting between them, and Irie ends up sleeping with both twins on the same day.

Events come to a head on New Year’s Eve, when an exhibit of FutureMouse is scheduled to open. Marcus’s work has earned the opposition of multiple groups, including KEVIN, FATE, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all three plan to interrupt the event with protests. The Joneses and Iqbals are also there, including Irie, who is pregnant by either Magid or Millat.

Marcus begins a speech about FutureMouse, eventually turning to acknowledge an old man he describes as his mentor. At this point, Archie realizes that Millat—who, unbeknownst to the rest of KEVIN, has a gun—is about to shoot the man and that the man is Dr. Perret. Another flashback reveals that Archie did not in fact shoot Perret; overwhelmed by the moral responsibility of what he was about to do, he flipped a coin. The act worked in Perret’s favor, but Perret grabbed Archie’s gun while Archie was bending to retrieve the coin and shot him in the leg.

In the present, Archie jumps between Millat and Perret and is once again shot in the leg. He falls into the glass cage containing FutureMouse, breaking it and allowing the mouse to escape. At this point, the narrative flashes forward to reveal the future of the novel’s major characters: Magid and Millat are both sentenced to community service as a result of confusion over the shooter’s identity; Irie and Joshua end up together and celebrate New Year’s Eve 1999 in Jamaica, along with Hortense and Irie’s “fatherless little girl” (448); and Samad and Archie celebrate the start of the new millennium by bringing their wives to the pub they used to frequent alone. The novel ends, however, on the image of Archie watching happily as FutureMouse escapes.

Related Titles

By Zadie Smith