Metaphorical Meaning Of Teeth And Root Canals In White Teeth By Zadie White
White Teeth, by Zadie White uses many themes throughout the book that play a big role in how we understand the book. One of the biggest themes that is present and is in the name of the book is the use of teeth. Teeth and root canals are used as metaphors about people’s past and current state. All teeth are white no matter what race you are which connects all of us no matter what nationality we are. Teeth also leave a legacy that we can see after the fact of an event which is why they are so important to the novel. Roots canals are used by Smith to describe that the next facts are about a character’s past. Teeth and roots relate to many of the characters in the novel including Archie, Clara, J.P. Hamilton, Irie and Millat. In the novel the teeth represent the state of each one of these characters and the roots characterize the history of the characters.
Archie’s white teeth represent that he is a mediocre and indecisive characters and relies on a game of chance to decide many life choices. Archie has very deep roots from his time in World War II, the time he tried to kill himself, and his inability to make a choice without flipping a coin. Archie however becomes more decisive when he learns that he will become a father and specifically about the conversation that he has with his boss. Because of his indecisiveness he is unable to make decisions without flipping a coin. This is first seen on the very first page of the book when Archie is deciding whether he should kill himself on New Year’s Eve. The author writes, “He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by the results. This was a decided-upon suicide”. Archie’s indecisiveness is part of Archie’s teeth and roots. It is who he is a person, he needs a game of chance in order to make very big life choices in his life. Another of example of Archie letting the chance of a coin decide the outcome of his life is deciding what to do with Dr. Sick. This story is rotten in the core of Archie’s teeth because he is allowing a coin to decide the fate of Dr. Sick’s life. Archie states in the novel, “And now I’m going to throw this coin. And if it’s heads, I’m going to kill you…And if it’s tails, I won’t”. This represents Archie as a man that is very apathetic and is alright morally to allow a coin to decide the fate of a man’s life. This shows that Archie’s roots are rotten at the core. As stated above teeth are worthless without the roots or the experience that a character has experienced. Although Archie’s teeth are white like normal teeth the roots that are holding them together are rotten to the core and is something that Archie must live with. Archie can become more decisive when learning of his wife’s pregnancy. Archie tells his coworkers, but they are uncomfortable about the fact that Archie has a black wife and Archie’s boss pays him to stay quiet. In this example Archie can move on from having to utilize a coin to make a decision that is very important at that point and time. Although the oldest part of Archie’s root are rotten the newer and younger roots are healthier and showing a developing Archie since his attempt at suicide. The next character that has interesting teeth and root canals is Clara.
Clara’s teeth and root canals change when she loses her upper teeth in a scooter accident with her previous boyfriend. Before losing her teeth and meeting Archie she was a follower of Jehovah’s Witness. The root canals or Clara’s history are her beliefs in Jehovah’s Witness. She tries and convert people to the religion by going door to door expressing her belief in the religion hoping people will believe in her statements. Just like how root canals represent the past the teeth represent the person currently. Smith writes, “By February 1975, Clara had deserted the church and all its biblical literalism for Archibald Jones, but she was not yet the kind of carefree atheist”. When she meets Archie, she had already lost her teeth in the scooter accident with Ryan. Stated above teeth cannot be connected to the person without the canal roots. So, if people lose their teeth and are rootless, they are no longer connected to what those teeth symbolized. This is true with Clara when she lost her upper teeth. Her root canals are tied with Jehovah’s Witness, but when she lost her teeth in the accident, she loses her connection to the Jehovah’s Witness. Losing your teeth and your roots means that you are losing some of your identity that was with you and this is true with Clara. A smaller character that slightly plays a role in novel but has great advice about teeth hygiene is J.P. Hamilton.
J.P. Hamilton does not play a big role in the book, but he does talk about the importance of one’s teeth in mammals. Mr. Hamilton’s teeth show that he did not take care of his teeth and because of that needs to grind down all his food. Mr. Hamilton states, I simply cannot eat anything unless it has been pulverized beforehand, you see. My own fault. Years and years of neglect. Clean teeth — never a priority in the army”. Mr. Hamilton first starts in a practical sense that you want to take care of your teeth because it is hard to eat if they are not being taken care of. Mr. Hamilton’s roots to his original teeth have all died and because of this his teeth have fallen out which means that he has lost those characteristics that came with those teeth. The other important significance that he makes to Milat, Magid, and Irie is that you only get two chances to keep your teeth healthy. That means you only get two times in your life in order to keep the characteristics that make up who you are before they are lost forever. Mr. Hamilton states this when he says, “One sometimes forgets the significance of one’s teeth. We’re not like the lower animals — teeth replaced regularly and all that — we’re of the mammals, you see. And mammals only get two chances, with teeth. More sugar?”. We can see the importance of our teeth through the last two characters Mr. Hamilton and Clara. They both changed their lifestyles and left behind their old ones when they lost their teeth because without the roots to support their teeth, they cannot grow a connection. Mr. Hamilton portrays how important your teeth are because teeth like stated above represent people. A character that is opposed to her roots and teeth is Irie.
Irie is an interesting character who is very upset about her root canals and about her teeth. Pertaining to her teeth she is unsure what she wants to be, but she just wants to impress Millat. Irie is upset with her roots because she is not fully part of either group of being British or Jamaican. Because her mom Clara is black, and Archie is white, she finds it conflicting of which nationality she really belongs to. Irie attempts to “change her teeth” by getting her hair done. Irie goes to the hair salon to get her hair straightened and dyed red. The salon lady sad not possible “Don wash it! If you wan’ it straight, don’ wash it! You ever have ammonia on your head? It’s like the devil’s having a party on your scalp. You crazy? Don’ wash it for two weeks an’ den come back”. Based on her heritage and being black, her hair is harder to straighten especially because she just cleaned it. This is where she struggles with her roots and where she thinks she belongs. But on a bigger picture she is having trouble deciding if she should claim her nationality as British or Jamaican.
Millat just like Irie struggles with accepting his roots especially because of his father’s distaste for him. Millat’s twin brother Magid is liked much more by their father because he is brighter and possibly because he was the first born. He sends Magid to Bangladesh for Magid to be more traditional Muslim, but dos not tell Millat. Samad is growing concern of his sons and states to Archibald, “I am corrupt, my sons are becoming corrupt, we are all soon to burn in the fires of hell”. Samad is worried that his sons are following in his footsteps and are becoming corrupt like he has. Samad’s root have become corrupt and want to try and step in to try and make sure that his sons roots do not become corrupt. Unfortunately for Samat, Millat becomes a conservative Muslim in order to spite his father and go against his roots that he wants to rewrite. The quote displays that even with help we can go against what we are taught to believe in. In the process of doing this though Millat is rotting not only his roots but his teeth.
In conclusion, teeth and root canals are a major theme throughout the novel and is key to describing or representing each character that has their teeth or roots portrayed. Each character possesses white teeth, but as shown each set of white teeth have roots that tell very different stories and beliefs that are unique to each character. We learn that without the proper roots they will become rotten and cause a disconnect with the teeth which is supposed to represent the characters.
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