TEETH_White Teeth Ch. 17-18 Mini-Thesis

Zadie Smith strategically titled this novel, “White Teeth,” in an effort to draw attention to her continuous and myriad references to teeth throughout the text. The big question throughout this novel has been, what is the significance of teeth? We have been reminded of teeth in the various chapter titles; “Teething Trouble, “The Root Canals…,” “Molars;” the various descriptions of teeth throughout, Clara’s absence of natural teeth and presence of false teeth, etc. The references are abundant.

In this section of the text, I developed an idea of the possible significance of teeth in this novel. On page 385, at the very end of chapter seventeen, “Crisis Talks and Eleventh-Hour Tactics,” White makes the following comment about immigrants, “…they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.” This is when it hit me. Teeth are a metaphor for this very sentence, which seems to be a profound message in the book.  A person’s teeth are an inescapable history. Dead bodies are identified by teeth. Even the lack of teeth can identify a person. Dental records are a relied-upon method of identifying people. And this form of identification is virtually inescapable.

Smith uses the symbol of teeth to make the message that although we may try, we can never truly escape our history. Smith provides example after example of this phenomenon. Take Clara. Clara tried to escape Hortense and the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and by an on-the-surface account, and until these past few chapters, it seemed she had succeeded, but it is revealed late in the novel, that Clara was never really all that far from Hortense or this faith. Her husband, and own flesh and blood, Irie, had visited Hortense behind her back for many years. Then, as a teenager, Irie ventures to Hortense’s house for refuge and Clara is forced to acknowledge her history. She can’t escape it.

Irie tries a similar tactic. She tries to escape her history by running away from Clara, who employs much more traditional thoughts than Irie does about education and travel. But she can’t do it. She escapes to Hortense’s house, but that is no escape from Clara. Hortense talks about Clara, and eventually Irie returns home.

Samad sends Magid off in an effort to encourage Magid to escape his history as a resident of England. We all know that didn’t work out as planned. Magid can’t escape his history as an Englishmen. In fact, he embraces his Englishness, and as is pointed out, returns, “More English than the English.” And although Samad attempts to escape his history as a Muslim by cheating on Alsana, he cannot do it. His very sin encourages his faith.

I think we will learn in the final chapters that Josh cannot escape his history as a Chalfen the way he wants to, or has tried to, either. He has already been forced to acknowledge among his FATE friends that he is of Chalfen descent. I have to predict that when the day comes, he will not be able to turn his back on his family or his father’s efforts with FutureMouse.

The big idea Smith seems to be getting at is that these characters try to handle their histories in all the wrong ways. They try to escape their histories; turn their backs on them; hide from them; try not to acknowledge them. I think Smith is trying to tell us that even when we would rather not have the history we have, we have to acknowledge that it is a part of who we are. We can move forward from that, but we cannot turn our back on it.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. kelseywhelan2013
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 15:00:51

    I really like the connection you made with the dental records and how teeth are used as an identifier. I agree that teeth act as a metaphor throughout the novel and that no matter who we pretend to be, our history cannot be erased.

    Reply

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