White Teeth

Zadie Smith, White Teeth (New York: Vintage International, 2000)

            In chapters five and six of White Teeth, Smith directs the reader’s attention to character development.  She cleverly weaves the repetitive themes of religion, ethnicity, race and generational cycle with Samad Iqbal’s yesteryears and how his experiences has fostered his identity struggle.

The crux of Samad’s personal conflict revolves around his social position within western society in that Samad’s awareness of self tends to compliment his lofty ideal rather than reality.  Here again, Smith recapitulates the waiter versus refined scholar identity that envelops Samad by revealing the conflict’s origin. It originated in World War II where the younger Samad grappled with his status of lowly private, believing he was deserving of a higher rank based on merit and ancestry. Moreover, Samad’s frustrations regarding his status causes him to blame English discrimination for the class burden he bears.  Ironically, this seemingly has established the pattern that Samad will inevitably blame his hardships on someone or something other than himself.  To this point, Samad, has never considered that he alone has the power to change his circumstances.

Smith also continues the importance of religion in these chapters. The reader begins to recognize that the theme of religion is two-fold.  As both a catalyst for Samad’s conduct and perception as well as the primary facet for inequity, Smith is able to highlight the hidden influences of Christianity within western culture that seeks to marginalize such counterparts as Islam or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  This is emphasized in an interesting but subtle parallel between Samad and Clara.   Both endeavor to break free from the moral restraints and ideological inconsistencies that religion has woven into their cultural fabric.  Although Clara has successfully escaped its trappings, Samad attempts to cling to Islam while he gradually assimilates western civilization since he continually blames the west for corrupting his value system.  Particularly refreshing is Smith’s approach to critiquing religion in that she deals with its complexities and consequences in a light-hearted manner often employing wit to convey the central ideas.  Samad’s continual negotiations for vices and liberties with Allah inject hilarity into the story as it is something that most readers can relate to and inherently do in some shape or form.  Additionally, the erotic self-gratification he frequently engages in supplies plenty of comic relief while simultaneously symbolizing Samad’s acquiescence to the West.

Finally, Smith encapsulates the chapters with her continuing emphasis on the destinies of each generation.  Through Samad, she expresses the idea that an individual’s life path is part of a cycle rather than being linear. This is unquestionably a detrimental factor in Samad’s battle to discover his true self as his great-grandfather’s heroic (or rebellious) deeds both haunt and dictate his actions and worldview.  Furthermore, Samad routinely expresses the idea that his choices and his behavior will most certainly influence his offspring’s fate. Hence, the title, “White Teeth,” means that something lost is always replaced regardless if it is for better or for worse.

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A Scandalous Woman

Edna O’Brien, A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories of Edna O’Brien, A Scandalous Woman (New York: Plume, 1985).

In the short story, “A Scandalous Woman,” Edna O’Brien elaborates on the sacrificial role that young women assume as a result of Irish cultural values and their own naivety.  The story is conveyed to the reader through the recollections of an older woman reminiscing on a cherished childhood friendship with Eily Hogan, for whom the story is aptly named.  From the onset, the narrator identifies herself as Eily’s shadow.  This is illuminated in the vignette of Eily who is portrayed as beautiful but rebellious in nature.  Moreover, the narrator’s characterization suggests that she was the meeker of the two girls (O’Brien, 23).  As such, this establishes the friendship as linear. It evolves from a point of infatuation on the narrator’s part to one of girlish mischief laced in secrecy and culminating in a regrettable dissolution.

The secrecy of the relationship resonates from Eily’s unscrupulous liaisons with a local bank clerk who has newly arrived in town.  Eily expresses her passion for “Romeo” and employs the narrator to aid her in meeting him (O’Brien, 244-245).  Reluctantly the narrator agrees in order to preserve the friendship.  However, she serves as a counter to Eily’s immorality as she bears the burdens of guilt for both of them.  Additionally, the seedy relationship of Eily and Jack serves as a prop to depict how the social pressures wrought from family tradition, sense of honor and religion serve to entrap women.  This is portrayed by the reactions of the supporting characters when the tryst is exposed as Eily’s “fall from grace.” She suffers harsh punishments such as beatings and solitary confinement which are meant to make her conform to society’s norms. Marriage to the bank clerk is also forced upon her.  The marriage serves as the primary catalyst in breaking Eily’s free spirit and leads to her eventual insanity (O’Brien, 252-263).  By the same token the secrecy also brilliantly expresses O’Brien’s theme of young women who inherently strive to escape the confines of their upbringing only to meet with calamity from which they never seem to recover.

O’Brien’s style envelopes the qualities of fairytales but in reverse. Instead of the young girl meeting her prince and living happily ever after, she is typically exiled to a life that she ardently tries to escape.  “A Scandalous Woman,” incorporates this quality not only through Eily’s experiences but also through the subtle use of metaphor and cliché.  The inclusion of dogs in the story serves to accentuate the conditions in which women live as well as foreshadows the trouble the girls incur from Eily’s downfall.  Careful analysis renders the discovery of cliché in the “mother’s warning,” “It was all too good to be true” ( O’Brien, 247). Furthermore, it delineates women’s relations to one another as overcome with competitiveness and jealousy.  This is best exemplified in the sister, Nuala, who the narrator describes as “happiest when someone was upset” (O’Brien, 241).  Clearly the cliché here is “misery loves company.”

O’Brien is to be celebrated for successfully capturing the essence of life in a rural community by delicately weaving small town cultural traits such as gossip and meddling into the story which gives the feeling that the reader is actually there.  More importantly, she triumphantly demonstrates the seriousness of violating a code of silence in that while it is detrimental for a woman to step outside the boundaries society has laid for them, it is much worse to admit to the deed itself. Although Eily denied her love affair with the bank clerk to the bitter end, it was her own body, not the narrator who betrayed her. Conclusively, the misdeeds one commits are known but to talk about them is taboo.