Zadie Smith's dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith's voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own. At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England's irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn't quite match her name (Jamaican for "no problem"). Samad's late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal's every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London's racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.
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As this quote reflects, one of the themes of this novel is how the past follows us all around. Even trivial actions can have life-altering consequences, even for the generations that come after us. Keep this in mind as you read.
Zadie Smith is an award-winning British novelist. She now splits her time between London and New York, where Smith works as a professor at New York University. White Teeth is her debut novel. (This annotation contains an image)
Based on the early dialogue in the book, how would you best describe Smith's writing style?
This epiphany on the heels of his suicide attempt opens Archie up to a series of events that will alter the course of his life.
The name of Archie's first wife is a nod to the Shakespeare character Ophelia from the play Hamlet, who also descends into madness. (This annotation contains an image)
What does Archie's silence in this situation tell you about him?
The friendship between Archie and Samad seems unlikely, but it is the basis for the novel. Much of the plot revolves around the connection between these two men and their offspring.
How is Archie's being left out of the Olympic records, based on an oversight by a sloppy secretary, symbolic of his life so far?
"Terribly skinny, ribs like lobster traps" is a simile. Watch the video below to learn more about simile and metaphor so you can look for examples as you read. (This annotation contains a video)
"Still beaming like a madman" is an example of
Smith uses vivid imagery to describe characters and make them come to life. As you read, notice how much her descriptive language adds to the story. (This annotation contains a video)
What does Smith want the reader to know about beautiful women, and Clara in particular?
One of the themes of this novel is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is defined as strict adherence to beliefs and doctrine not embraced by the larger population. While fundamentalist beliefs unite you to others who feel the same as you do, they alienate you from both people close to you and society as a whole. Clara's mother's religious beliefs are the first example in the novel, but later on you will see two other characters engage in their own isolating fundamentalist beliefs.
What does the end of the world mean to Clara's mother, Hortense? What does this make you think about her character?
Clara meeting Ryan is an example of irony. Hortense wants Clara to stay far away from boys, preferring her to go door to door to spread the Lord's message. It is ironic that while doing what Hortense wants her daughter to do, she meets and begins a relationship with a boy. (This annotation contains a video)
"Clara felt she was closing in on herself, like a telescope" is an example of
Clara's relationship with Ryan is taking her farther away from her roots and her mother's fundamentalist beliefs. This is one of the themes of the novel. Many of the characters are either trying to escape their roots, cling to them, or try to find them.
What is happening to Ryan?
In this novel, Smith uses teeth as a symbol for people. Despite all of the racial and cultural differences in people, they all have white teeth. Clara losing all of her top teeth symbolizes the complete split she is about to make from her family and her mother's fundamentalist beliefs. (This annotation contains a video)
According to Smith, why did the beautiful and sexy teenage Clara fall in love with a middle-aged man lacking in confidence?
Willesden Green, where Archie and Clara move to, is a working class area in Northwest London. Like the novel reflects, there are a large number of immigrants and people of different ethnicities residing there. Willesden Green was also where Smith herself grew up. (This annotation contains an image)
Clara thinks that Archie is a/an _________ man.
Like Archie and Clara, Smith's father was English and her mother was Jamaican.
This is the second instance of Archie struggling to do something physically that
Race and ethnicity is one of the themes of this novel. It seems like Archie is very culturally enlightened to have a black wife and an Indian best friend, but his own thinking betrays his underlying prejudices when he mentions "those kind of Indians" and "not that kind of black."
What is the difference between the way that others see Samad at the restaurant and how he sees himself? Why do you think that this issue is important to him?
Archie and Samad are both realizing that they have not married the kind of easy women that they were hoping for. Quite the opposite, the women that they have married make both of them feel emasculated.
Alsana calls her niece "Niece-of-Shame" rather than by her name. What does this detail show the reader about Alsana?
Just as the husbands are realizing how little they know the women that they married, the wives are learning that the husbands are never going to truly let them in.
What does this interaction between Archie and Maureen tell you about how people are going to react to his biracial child?
Archie's boss is trying to tell him that he doesn't want for Archie to bring his black wife to a company dinner. Does this blatant racism surprise you?
Archie's boss basically bribed him with ____________ to not bring his wife to any more company events.
Their shared pregnancy status is making Clara and Alsana unlikely friends just like the war made their much older husbands unlikely friends decades ago.
What is Alsana's main point?
These are all feminist texts that Clara is reading secretly. (This annotation contains an image)
How does Alsana's comment about the past and roots echo one of the main themes of the novel?
The title of this chapter reflects the symbolism of teeth in the novel. This chapter is not about dentistry, but the root canals are a metaphor for the wartime past that unites Archie and Samad.
The men in Samad's troop treat him with
This is the second time we've seen Samad upset that others don't see him the way that he wants to be seen, or that he sees himself. Identity is a powerful theme in this novel.
The men liked to tell stories of their ___________ when they would gather together at night.
The story you are reading about how Archie and Samad became unlikely friends is told as a flashback. Although the novel begins on New Year's Day 1975, Smith uses many flashbacks to give background information about the characters, and to show how important the past is in shaping characters' lives for decades, or generations, to come. Watch the video below to learn more about the use of flashbacks as a literary device. (This annotation contains a video)
Describe the bizarre lives that Archie and Samad have found themselves leading together at the close of the war. How do you think that this cements their unlikely friendship?
Samad is being set up in an arranged marriage. This was common in Bengal, where Samal is from. The marriage is arranged by the families of the bride and groom, and in many cases the bride and groom don't meet until just before their wedding. (This annotation contains an image)
Considering his future marriages, this is a very ironic statement coming from Archie.
Mangal Pandey was a real person. The British term "pandie" was named after him, and it means a traitor or rebel. In India, however, he is known as a freedom fighter. (This annotation contains an image)
What does Samad ask of Archie?
Samad is echoing one of the main themes of the novel: that we, and our children, are a product of the consequences of our actions. "Our accidents will become our destinies."
What are Archie and Samad just finding out?
Is Samad lying to the Russians? If so, what do you think his motives are?
His post-Olympic prostitute was the last thing that crossed his mind before he almost died during his suicide attempt three decades later.
Why does Smith say that Samad turned on Archie?
Smith interrupts Samad's suicide attempt with the song lyrics in order to both build suspense and highlight the ridiculousness of the whole situation. She employs this technique again later in the novel.
What is wrong with Dr. Perret?
Smith is foreshadowing the reappearance of Dr. Perret in a pivotal scene in the book. It will be a scene where the science versus religion debate that Samad is referring to will be coming to a head! (This annotation contains a video)
Smith doesn't let the reader see what transpired between Archie and Dr. Perret. What do you think happened?
The governor's meeting is similar to an American PTA meeting.
The tone of the chairwoman could best be described as
Alsana is annoyed and embarrassed by Samad's over-interest in the twins' education. The physical struggle that they have in the highlighted section is symbolic for what goes on in the marriage as a whole.
What is Samad surprised to discover?
Samad preferring Magid to Millat plays a large role as the story goes on. As you read, notice how Samad's preference changes the entire course of fate for the family.
Although we don't yet know the meaning of these two phrases, why do you think Samad is finding comfort in repeating them to himself? What is it that has made him feel so uncomfortable?
Samad's Alim laughs at the option that any man could ever truly be pure. Samad takes the Alim's advice too literally.
Why is Samad throwing himself into his job?
Samad is becoming obsessed with the idea that England is the problem, not himself. Soon he will start to think he needs to save his family from his adopted country.
Why is Samad on edge about the kids being late for school?
This is an example of onomatopoeia, when words are spelled like the sound they represent. Another example would be saying that "the rain went drip drop."
What is at the root of Samad's disapproval of the Harvest Festival? How do you think it effects him that his favorite son is protesting Samad's attempt to get it cancelled?
Samad's comment is ironic because, although Samad desperately wants to be the one who "wears the pants" in his house, he isn't, and Archie knows that well.
What about Poppy's statement to the class would bother Samad if it weren't for his crush on her?
The highlighted selection is a metaphor for what has happened to Alsana's spirit.
Samad tends to think he is an inherently ______ person, while Poppy likes to think she is a _________ person.
Samad is making this up because he does't want to admit that Magid is protesting the exact thing that Samad is fighting for.
What is happening in the Iqbal's household? In which ways are the family members betraying each other?
Smith structures the characters' dialogue like this to show that their thoughts are unfinished.
What does Samad's gift of a coconut really represent?
"...his fingers lay in a permanent tight spasm like talons" is an example of a simile.
"But the old man shook his head like a bird in a birdbath" is an example of
Remember that teeth are symbols for people in this novel. By Mr. Hamilton telling the children to take care of their teeth, he is really telling them to take care of themselves, and the people in their lives. Samad gets a reminder of this later on in the chapter.
How does Mr. Hamilton's statement about wisdom teeth being "passed down by the father" reflect one of the main themes of this novel?
Mad Mary is acting like Samad's conscience. She is giving him the public condemnation he usually gives himself in private.
Samad finally gets Mary to go away by
This chapter ends with two references to teeth and their symbolism: Poppy hands Samad a toothbrush a moment after he sees his sons biting into apples and waving at him.
Based on the information given in this phone call, how do you think Samad is feeling?
One of the themes of this novel is how we identify ourselves and others by our race. Samad gets very frustrated when he is mistaken for being Indian. Mickey, on the other hand, is an Arab whose given name is Abdul, but he goes by an Irish name and runs an Irish pool room.
If you were Archie, what kind of guidance would you give Samad and why?
Mickey's solution is one that will appeal to Samad. Remember, he was blaming his infidelity not on himself, but on England.
The highlighted passage represents
The title of this chapter is "Mitosis," which is the stage during development that the twins split from one to become two different people. Samad's decision is going to split them again.
Samad's tone with his wife could best be described as one of
Rather than show concern for their parents' fighting or try to break it up, the twins are betting on who will win.
Poppy's reaction to the breakup is different from what Samad wanted. He was hoping she would be heartbroken and try to woo him back, rather than be angry. Why is this wish hypocritical of Samad?
Smith also interspersed dialogue with song lyrics during the scene where Archie was trying to convince Samad not to commit suicide.
Why is Smith cutting into the action with song lyrics?
"False teeth floating silently to the bottom of a glass" is the image that Smith uses to compare Samad's memory of this event to. Knowing what teeth mean in this novel, do you think that Smith's comparison is approving of Samad's actions or condemning them?
Alsana believes that the biggest difference between her birth and adopted country is that in Bangladesh people "learn to hold their lives lightly" due to all of the natural disasters there. She thinks that Magid being put in the way of possible physical danger is the worst part of his kidnapping.
How does Alsana get revenge upon Samad for Magid's kidnapping?
It is ironic that right after Samad expressed happiness that the twins would no longer look alike, Millat broke his nose, too. Fate is showing that their lives are still linked.
What was the trouble with Millat?
Even though the twins are separated, fate is working to keep them together, as their broken noses show. At the same moment that Magid survived a tornado, Millat had unprotected sex with someone who has a life-threatening STD and didn't catch it: both boys were spared.
What does this statement tell you about Samad's priorities?
As previously mentioned, Smith has written many autobiographical details about herself into Irie's character. Both Smith and Irie grew up in the same neighborhood, have an English father and a Jamaican mother, and both struggled with being overweight as teenagers. (This annotation contains an image)
A tree crashes into the house, just missing but nearly killing ____________.
Despite claiming that he's not attracted to Irie and she will never get anywhere with him, Millat kisses her.
Millat and his friends becoming Raggastani highlight which of the novel's themes?
Millat is referencing stereotypes people make about him rather than his own self-identity. This is similar to an earlier chapter when his father Samad said he wanted to carry around a sign telling people at the restaurant who he really is.
What is at the root of Alsana's argument with Samad? Whose perspective do you agree with more?
"Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence" is a great simile expressing Irie being at an age where every thought she has feels very profound to her.
While watching the fall of the Berlin Wall, Smith
To the two men, O'Connell's is almost as much of a character as it is a setting.
Knowing Samad's value systems, why do you think Mickey hanging the portrait of Mangal Pandey means so much to him?
Do you remember when Archie and Clara were first married? Archie's boss bought him off with the Luncheon Vouchers to not bring Clara to a company dinner.
"If you are lucky enough to uncover one, a full story will sit on your brain like lead" is an example of
The English versions and Indian versions of the story of Mangal Pandey do have some differences, most notably in whether he was a cowardly traitor or a revered freedom fighter. Below is the commemorative postage stamp featuring Pandey from India. (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Rajnu agree with Samad?
Archie is foreshadowing something that will become very important in the final scenes of the novel. Hint: think back to when Samad ordered him to kill Dr. Perret.
Irie is conditioned by the beauty standards she sees all around her in England. Have you ever felt like Irie? What advice would you give her that would help her self-image?
While puberty seems to have taken Irie inside of herself, it has done the opposite to Millat. While Irie feels isolated, Millat feels like he owes the world his coolness, and his reputation is growing.
In the totem pole of popularity at school, Millat is at the _______ and Joshua is at the ________.
Poor Irie, she is determined to get rid of the kinky hair that other students made fun of her for.
"Like rich women in posh restaurants orderings ever-smaller salads" is an example of
In her quest to conform to other peoples' standards of beauty, Irie has singed off all of her hair, leaving her worse off than she was before.
How does this statement by the lady in line behind Irie reflect on the novel's themes of both race and identity?
Until this moment, Irie had not considered that there would be anyone who thought her natural hair was prettier than the straight hair she desired.
Niece-of-Shame and her girlfriend give Irie what advice?
In an ironic twist, the son Samad sent to be educated traditionally, is turning out to be an English intellectual after all.
Alsana's statment to Samad, "You have to let them make their own mistakes"
Irie is always looking for Millat, and the raid is giving her an excuse to feel very important while doing so.
In what ways is this interaction typical of all interactions between Irie and Millat in the past few years? Cite examples from the text in your answer.
Millat's budding involvement with the group KEVIN is his foray into fundamentalism. As mentioned earlier, one of the themes of this novel is how fundamentalism isolates you from others. Who do you think Millat will isolate?
What is ironic about Irie getting caught with a joint?
KEVIN is not a real organization.
What is Irie's and Millat's punishment for getting caught with the marijuana?
This is one of many coincidences in the novel. Also note how Smith compares secrets to wisdom teeth.
How does this writing by Joyce Chalfen, Joshua's mother, echo one of the novel's themes?
The world that Irie and Millat are about to enter into is a very different socioeconomic one from the working class upbringing that they have had.
What does Joyce Chalfen need?
Irie has never met anyone like the Chalfens, and she instantly falls in love with their family.
Irie has a crush on ________, and ________ has a crush on Irie.
While Irie has fallen in love with the Chalfen's intellectualism, Millat sees them as a chance to enrich his life financially. This dichotomy highlights the basic differences in the way that Irie and Millat see the world.
What does Smith mean when she says that Joyce looked at Irie and Millat the way she looked at one of her flowers? What kind of relationship do you think Joyce wants to have with the children?
Joyce is a great example of someone who means well, but has no clue how to relate to the world around her. When she calls Irie and Millat "brown strangers" she is trying to be nice, not realizing how racist it sounds.
"She was crossing borders, sneaking into England" is an example of
We already know that Irie is very touchy about her weight-- her mother has tried to get her to stop wearing corsets and minimizers, and she also keeps her right hand over her stomach in hopes of camouflaging it's girth, but Marcus Chalfen can do no wrong in Irie's eyes.
How would you best describe the dynamic between Joyce and Millat?
Joyce's statement is ironic because she wants to be crowding Millat by herself. Irie is used to being the one who tries to get next to Millat, and now Joyce is trying to take her place.
What are some of the differences between the Chalfen family tree and Irie's?
FutureMouse, the crowning achievement of Marcus' genetic research, will prove to be it's own kind of fundamentalism as it relates to the theme of the book. As you read, notice how the characters will begin to divide themselves along the lines of science or religion.
What do Alsana and Clara think of their children's relationships with the Chalfens?
"Birds with teeth!" is how Alsana characterizes the Chalfens, using their teeth to rip the families apart.
Why does Smith foreshadow that Joyce will not get along with Niece-of-Shame?
The Chalfen charm that has drawn Irie and Millat in is lost on Niece -of-Shame and her girlfriend, as the Chalfens make inappropriate comments about their race and sexuality.
Clara wants to thank the Chalfens for all they have done for the children this year, but Alsana wants nothing to do with them. How does this difference of opinion highlight other differences between the women?
Joyce is being highly offensive, insinuating that Irie's intelligence couldn't have come from either Clara or Archie. Clara betrays herself, claiming that it came from her white grandfather. Even though Clara knows she is lying, she thinks that answer will best suit what Joyce wants to hear.
What does Smith mean when she calls Ambrosia's dress "disingenuous"?
Once again, Smith uses the metaphor of a root canal to show how deep the roots of heritage are.
To what is Ambrosia referring to when she repeats "It soon come"?
These plans would be a direct betray of Samad, who has spent all of his money trying to get Magid out of England for his education.
Irie is betrayed by Marcus, her mentor, in a letter he wrote to Magid. How does Irie take this news and what does it make her resolve?
Everyone in Millat's life is trying to get him to change his ways and see his potential: Samad, Alsana, Irie, Joyce, and now the members of KEVIN.
What are Millat's intentions in preaching about modesty to this girl?
Irie knocks over Clara's false teeth and is bitten by them. Until this moment, Irie had no idea that her mother's upper teeth had been knocked out years ago.
After the betrayal of Clara's false teeth, where does Irie escape to?
Irie's rebellion is to go back to her forbidden roots: her grandmother's house. Irie needs to discover her heritage. This betrayal of Clara's wishes runs parallel to Magid's betrayal of Samad's wishes with his correspondence with Marcus.
What is your reaction to finding out that Clara's ex-boyfriend has been living with Hortense and is a prominent Jehovah's Witness?
Ryan's tone with Hortense is very condescending. Hortense has been a Witness her entire life, but Ryan thinks that he can better interpret scripture than she can.
What is the newest secret revealed to Irie?
To Christians, the Good News is another way of talking about the gospel of Jesus.
How would you best describe Clara's reaction to Irie's new living situation?
By saying that Irie's atheism was "Chalfenist in its confidence" Smith means that Irie is not going to be swayed by Hortense's religious sermons. She is going to approach it like an intellectual.
Compare and contrast Irie's life with Hortense to the one she had been living before. Cite examples from the text to support your response.
Joyce thinks that the soil needs to rest in winter. That is what this time is like for Irie: a time of hibernation from which she will hopefully emerge renewed, like the spring blooms.
Joshua becoming involved with FATE, an animals right's group, is
A pescatarian is someone who doesn't eat meat, except for fish.
Why is Samad unwilling to believe that Millat misses Magid?
Irie is trying to get to the root of things: her grandmother's faith, her ancestry. She is hoping that these answers will help her discover who she is, but Hortense is just as reluctant to talk as Clara is.
Knowing how eccentric and elitist the Chalfens can be, what do you think Marcus's "pop science" book would be like?
Indeed, opinions on FutureMouse become the main source of conflict between the characters throughout the rest of the novel. Watch the video below for more information on conflict in literature. (This annotation contains a video)
Magid admires Marcus in a way that Marcus desires, but who should Marcus really be trying to build/repair a relationship with?
When Samad sent Magid away, Alsana vowed to never give him a direct answer as long as Magid was gone.
How would you best describe Magid's tone?
Despite being twins and always linked, Magid and Millat are being kept apart by their fundamentalist beliefs.
What do you think about FutureMouse? Do you think that it will serve as an important scientific breakthrough, or that Marcus is tampering with fate in a way he shouldn't?
Irie is right. Joyce has spent all of her energy on Millat, while her own son drifts farther and farther away from the family.
Alsana is behaving very
Alsana blames the Chalfens for all of her family's troubles in the same way that Samad blames England.
Who has Millat borrowed the expression "can't say fairer than that" from?
These fight scenes between Samad and Alsana have gone from horrifying to humorous, as proven by the twins watching them fight and betting on which parent would be victorious. Alsana always is.
Mickey is impressed with Magid and compliments his perfect English speaking. What do you think Samad is feeling as Mickey does this?
Magid pointing out Alsana beating Samad in the fight is a way of emasculating his father. Magid is a keen manipulator of people and knows how to get under his father's skin.
Which character disagrees with what Marcus is doing with FutureMouse?
Archie is a man who is unable to make tough decisions. He also flipped a coin to decide whether or not he should commit suicide in the beginning of the novel.
Why is Irie ashamed?
In their unwillingness to yield to each other, Smith shows the reader how they each have their own kind of fundamentalism (Muslim versus Chalfinism) that is making them unable to reconcile.
How does this statement reflect upon the themes of identity, our ties to the past, race, and ethnicity in the novel? Cite evidence from the text to support your response.
This chapter focuses on the different types of fundamentalism from the novel and the characters involved in each one.
Where has the reader seen the butcher Mohammed Hussein-Ishmael before?
As Smith has noted before, Millat's involvement in KEVIN is less centered around his religious beliefs than it is his desire to be a gangster. That is reflected in this statement.
Why is Joshua attracted to Joely?
After watching the video of Smith reading a passage from her book NW on the previous page, what themes do you think exist within both novels?
For Smith's fourth novel NW she returns to this neighborhood. Watch the video below to hear Smith read a short excerpt regarding Willesden. (This annotation contains a video)
Because Joshua is Marcus' son, he is particularly valuable to FATE.
Josh tells the group that freeing FutureMouse is pointless because
Unlike Millat and Joshua, who are involved in their organizations for other reasons (namely for rebelling), Hortense and Ryan wholeheartedly believe in theirs.
What are the reasons that Magid is so enamored with FutureMouse, and why do you think these things would be important to him?
Joshua's betrayal of his father is now complete. As you read, watch for how his thoughts begin to change.
What scares Joshua?
Both Millat and Joshua getting high before the unveiling of FutureMouse shows that neither of them are comfortable with what their role in their groups' protests are supposed to be.
What is Shiva's tone when he tells Millat that he is just like Samad?
Millat feels the need to carry on Pande's legacy of revolution.
Compare and contrast the beliefs of Ryan to those of Magid, Millat, and Joshua. What is different and what remains the same?
Trafalgar Square in central London is where the action in the last two chapters of the book takes place. (This annotation contains an image)
Why do you think Smith is jumping around showing what each of the main characters is doing directly before Marcus' presentation?
These are some of Irie's primary concerns in life. It is very naive of her, however, to assume that the other passengers on the bus are free of internal conflict the way she does.
This paragraph hits on all of the following themes in the novel EXCEPT
Archie is finding himself identifying with FutureMouse.
Irie, at eight weeks pregnant, will never know who the father of her child is. Even a DNA test cannot tell apart genes from identical twins.
To his surprise, Samad finds himself
Samad has just discovered that Archie did not kill Dr. Perret like Samad ordered him to.
"Archie watched the ash fall like gray snow onto his boots" is an example of
Like most of the pivotal moments of his life, Archie is so indecisive that he feels he needs to flip a coin to help him decide whether or not to kill Dr. Perret.
In this happy ending that sees the characters contentedly ringing in the new millennium, Smith writes that Irie's little girl "feels free as Pinocchio, a puppet clipped of paternal strings." Do you think that anyone can ever really be free of their roots? After reading the novel do you think that Smith feels they can?