Certitude, Ambiguity, and Miscalculation in White Teeth
In White Teeth, Zadie Smith develops characters who obsess over preciseness, categorizing, and decisions. This is why Samad’s punishment for making the sole decision to send their son off to Bangladesh is Alsana leaving him in a constant state of ambiguity. ““Maybe none, Samad Miah. Maybe all.” Alsana refuses to answer even the most trivial of Samad’s questions with certainty. The unknown drives Samad up the wall and even worse, his son comes back more “English” than “Bangladeshi” anyways, wrecking Samad’s hopes for one son coming out like he wanted and definitively proving his choice to send Magid incorrect. It seems like Smith’s book punishes those who seek purity in race or culture. The more characters strive towards precision and correct calculation, the more they are struck down by the book’s fate. In this paper I will primarily go through the characters of Samad, Archie, and Irie to identify their tendencies regarding certainty and analyse how that element of their personalities shapes them. I will relate these elements to how damned the characters are to show how the book makes the case for acceptance of fluidity over multiculturalism.
As briefly shown in the previous paragraph, Samad Iqbal is determined to be sure. He is attached to the history surrounding his ancestors, deriving meaning from the past that controls who he is in the present. Samad is convinced that his great-grandfather, Pandes, was a hero in Bangladesh. He tells the war story to everyone and repeatedly, even begging Pandes’ picture to be hung up in a local bar. The more he gets into the story, the more those around him fact check it. Unfortunately for Samad, most historical evidence suggests that his great-grandfather was actually no hero at all. Despite the overwhelming facts, Samad desperately clings to the information he can to prove that his family was indeed great. His desire for the past reroutes him from living in the present, leading him to try to apply his roots to things that no longer exist (and never really did exist as we learn that Pande wasn’t the person Samad makes him out to be), failing him. The structure of the book itself also takes a shot at letting past control the present. In “Chance and Gesture in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and The Autograph Man: A Model for Multicultural Identity?” Jonathan Sell writes that “[The novel’s] foregrounding of the present means that the past is rendered as background and stripped of its conventional prerogative to shape the present, while the usual cast-iron sequence from cause to effect melts into a more liquid and arbitrary relationship of analogy or serendipitous contingency” (2006). This interesting analysis also helps show how the book tries to transcend time, jumping around a lot but still moving forward on average.
Marcus Chalfen is also for ruling out chance and taking complete control of destiny. He even says that his Future Mouse “holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history where we are not victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate.” Sell also finds this rootedness in Marcus Chalfen “who believes that if “[y]ou eliminate the random, you rule the world.” (2006). While not obsessed with conventional race, Chalfen is very attached to his family’s own culture of “Chalfenism”. The members of the family boast about their cultural superiority endlessly and know exactly what elements are “Chalfenist” as Joshua thinks Irie may have roots in. Their attachment to Chalfenism is no different than Samad’s attachment to Bangladeshi roots that he wants to impose on his family. The difference is that Samad is obsessed with the past while Marcus is obsessed with the future (literally his entire project has the word Future in it). Neither live presently. Even with the most trivial measurements, the characters in this novel can’t seem to get them right. After proudly being caught with pot, Joshua Chalfen is asked to measure out an eighth of tobacco to prove he is really a drug dealer. As if he knows the difference he asks if he should show them “a European eighth or an English eighth.” He pulls an amount not remotely close to either, embarrassing himself. Though paling in comparison to other characters in this book, Joshua’s stubbornness and determination leads to miscalculation. The mouse that Marcus Chalfen and Magid stand behind represents “just certainty. Just certainty in its purest form.” The end of the book comes down to an epic battle over a mouse representing the characteristics I’ve described: preciseness and control. Characters are divided on either side of the issue with the exception of those who really can’t form any opinion.
It is interesting that Marcus/Magid are on one side of the debate with Samad/Joshua on the other. It shows how forcing a culture on children inevitably fails, even entirely turning on characters. What does happen however, is that both children are still equally very determined people interested in precision and certainty, they have just gone over to the other side. Despite Samad’s obsession with decision, he still believes in fate created by God and also uses coins to make his choices, just like Archie. The backing away from choices in reality while putting together the appearance of decisiveness is what Samad’s problem is. He can never seemingly make a choice without worrying for a long time, and then letting a coin or God make the true call. The idea of splitting two brothers up, one to Bangladesh roots, and one to contemporary England, shows the inability to pick just one race, instead trying to live out both. What Samad doesn’t understand is that there has been a “root canal.” Once one generation crossed borders, there was no going back; the root was removed. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in the novel are not exempt from this analysis and correlation and are probably the most obvious example for criticism of not living presently. Every time a date they claim will be the end of the world passes without a hiccup, they notice a miscalculation that caused the inaccurate prediction and proclaim a new date. While not being obsessed with dividing their movement among racial or cultural lines, they instead exclude women from accessing their movement at a higher level. They spend the time leading up the proclaimed date making preparations and living entirely for the date. The Jehovah’s Witnesses live in the future instead of the past in this way, which still leads to them throwing away their lives. Their determinism in the faith as well as with keeping women out distracts them from being rational human beings a lot of the time
.In contrast to Samad, Archie Jones is willing to leave everything up to chance. He uses a coin to decide between life and death twice (both resulting in life). Even meeting Clara is a completely random occurrence. Archie doesn’t seem to be interested in making any choices himself, but still requires one to be made as opposed to leaving things open. This means that Archie still supports sending one of Samad’s children to Bangladesh and picking a side on Future Mouse, it just means he doesn’t care about putting thought into the decision. In her presentation at the Literature Colloquium, Paula mentioned the incident where the kids go to deliver a care package to an old white man who tells them a war story about using the contrast of white teeth against brown skin to determine whom to kill. The problem was that when the teeth would rot, it would be hard to tell who was the bad guy. Paula says this is another instance of ambiguity in the novel leading to a decision that results in life or death. Especially when remembering that teeth in this novel represent rootedness and tradition, the book seems to be making the argument that when culture or race isn’t defined, safety is ensured (because you are harder to target). Archie’s passive nature towards decision is passed on to his daughter. Irie Jones is easily influenced and victim to the choices that other people make for her. Most notably, this comes when she learns that her idol, Marcus Chalfen, thinks she can amount to a dentist but nothing more. She promptly changes her career aspirations and heads to dental school, letting Chalfen have jurisdiction over choices that should have been hers. This section is still at a time when Irie struggles with identity (typical for someone her age but her struggle is rooted in race which is more interesting than the average non-mixed race teen). In “The mouseness of the mouse: The competing discourses of genetics and history in White Teeth” by Michele Braun, she writes that Irie “wants to be one with the Chalfens, to separate “from the chaotic, random flesh of her own family and [be] transgenically fused with another. A unique animal. A new breed” (2013). In Irie’s imagination, the hybridity of a transgenic animal is attractive. It allows her a fantasy of escape from the tyranny of her family life and her part-black, part-white bodily traits because she imagines a blended identity will transcend the limits of either “black or white.”
At this point in the novel, Irie is intrigued by mixing cultures and races to achieve the best of multiculturalism. She has not yet learned to reject these things outright. When I argue that the novel makes an argument for fluidity, I don’t mean multiculturalism. I actually think the novel takes a much more radical stance and argues for tossing out culture based on geographic or racial lines altogether. In “After the Century of Strangers: Hospitality and Crashing in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth,” Ryan Trimm writes that “Smith’s novel uses the family as a miniature of the nation, a well-worn cliché for how domestic units turn “social processes into natural, instinctive ones,” a process stressing racial homogeneity.” (2015). I think Trimm is right in their analysis, that this novel shows the harms of prioritizing things like racial homogeneity, but I think they are wrong when they call it a well-worn cliche because I think Smith’s allegory shows something different. Rather than call out just racial homogeneity, Smith calls out every instance of certainty, of boundary, of value on borders. I think this is what makes this novel unique and interesting. Hoping for certain outcomes usually leaves the characters disappointed. When Archie hopes for certain outcomes, like his half-black daughter having blue eyes, he is typically left disappointed. Archie doesn’t really consider race when making the decision to be with Clara. In fact, he is excited to have a daughter with dark skin and blue eyes. This attachment to multiculturalism leads to his disappointment when Irie ends up having dark eyes (along with the other “worst parts of both parents”). With this, Smith critiques the fetishization of multiracial babies, shutting down the trope. In the last part of the novel, Irie gets pregnant after sleeping with both Iqbal twins. After being upset for a while at the prospect of her child having “no real coordinates,” she thinks “whatever. It was always going to turn out like this.” Irie’s child will be without roots, floating in some ambiguous space – not multicultural and interested in an assortment of their roots, but pure space. Irie chalks up the fluidity of the child’s history and ancestry to fate. The child, who would be the most racially diverse character in this book (a quarter English, a quarter Jamaican, and half Bangladeshi), is the most accepted. The child won’t be sent around to countries to try to reclaim roots. The child will “feel free as Pinocchio”, free of unnecessary ties to the past or to racial or cultural boundaries. This, the book argues, is optimal.
We can tell by analysing these characters that the book makes an argument of rejecting boundaries and defined identities. It seems that anyone who pushes to maintain a defined life is also someone who defends protecting cultural and racial institutions. These people end up losing the battle against the melting pot that is multicultural England. However, the characters who are seemingly liberal with these things aren’t any better. Acceptance of multiculturalism is also not something that is praised in the novel. Instead, Zadie Smith sets up a goal of fluidity of life and culture. This fluidity ignores roots in other countries and other cultures and encourages characters to live without influence, wholly as themselves.
Braun, Michele. “The mouseness of the mouse: The competing discourses of genetics and history in White Teeth.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. June, 2013. 01 Nov. 2016. Sell, J.P. “Chance and Gesture in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and The Autograph Man : A Model for Multicultural Identity?” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature September 2006. 01. Nov. 2016.Trimm, Ryan S. “After the Century of Strangers: Hospitality and Crashing in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.” Contemporary Literature ISSN: 0010-7484, 2015. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.
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In White Teeth, Zadie Smith develops characters who obsess over preciseness, categorizing, and decisions. This is why Samad’s punishment for making the sole decision to send their son off to […]