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.

Written on the Body Mini-thesis_Chelsea Dermody

I am not sure why this failed to dawn on me until this section of the reading, but I realized as I was reading today how truly feminist this novel is. Winterson seems to making an attempt to assert feminism throughout this novel.

One of the most prominent examples of this feminist approach is the characteristic of the novel we have been fighting with ourselves over from the beginning—Winterson’s decision to leave the narrator ungendered and unnamed. What better way to assert equality between the sexes than to write a novel whose main character, the story teller, has an unidentified gender! Way to blur the lines, Winterson!

Throughout the novel the narrator and Louise have this fluctuating balance of power. This hits on the post Carissa made on the power relationship in the first section. Louise certainly has power over the narrator, as Carissa points out. The narrator can think of no one but Louise and frequently transposes Louise in the relationships she has with other women. For example, on page 146, the narrator begins relaying a scene in which she seems to be describing Louise moving about the kitchen in the morning. She says, “The aromatic steam warmed our faces and clouded my glasses. She drew a heart on the lens. ‘So that you won’t see anybody but me,’ she said.” This description fits Louise, but it is placed right in the middle of a section where Louise is supposedly in Switzerland and the narrator has another woman, Gail, as company.

The narrator obsesses over Louise. She dreams of her in Switzerland; she relays erotic scenes (supposedly past, or maybe they are fantasies?) between her and Louise to the reader; she calls Louise’s ex-husband, Elgin, in an attempt to check up on Louise; she abandons her life and takes up residence in a dirty, old, one room cottage, quits using her college degree to translate and begins working at a bar. On page 174 the narrator says, “My equilibrium, such as it was, depended on her [Louise’s] happiness.” Louise lacks no control over the narrator.

However, the narrator is not without control over Louise either. Louise is immediately taken by the narrator, before the narrator even knows Louise has ever seen her. Louise cheats on her husband with the narrator—an act we assume she has never committed before. Louise may even engage in a homosexual relationship (if the narrator is a woman)—another act we assume Louise has never engaged in before. Louise leaves her husband. She gives up the life she knew. And isn’t it all for the narrator, or at least a result of her love for the narrator?

The phenomenon of shifting powers between the narrator and Louise, and specifically the continuous attainment and loss of power experienced by the ungendered narrator, is a great representation of feminism. Winterson seems to claim that gender does not determine power or authority. Both genders are equal. Therefore, regardless of whether the narrator is a woman or a man, she will hold power and lose power, while being unaffected by her sex. Isn’t this a powerful message?

I feel like the feminism in this novel should have occurred to me before the final section of book, but it was while reading a few strong comments in this final section that I realized the feminist message Winterson seems to be sending. Specifically, on page 172 after the narrator has visited the home of Louise’s mother and grandmother, the narrator makes a sarcastic comment on what she has just learned. She has discovered that Louise has left Elgin, even after the narrator abandoned Louise. In response to this the narrator tells us, “Instead Louise had left him. The ultimate act of selfishness; a woman who puts herself first.” This is where the feminism slapped me across the face. I read this comment incredibly sarcastically. The narrator seems to be poking fun at the idea that the ultimate act of selfishness comes when a woman puts herself fist. Winterson is careful to mention “woman” in this sentence. This comment references the traditional expectations of women—that they are to put others before themselves (as caretakers, etc.), and makes fun of these expectations.

The realization that Winterson may have been doing a little more with the ungendered narrator than appealing to our inner risqué-ness has made me appreciate this novel even more.