"A comical look at a country coming to grips at last with a reality it tried for a long time to ignore: to wit, that England had finally become a vibrant, multicultural society."
, Masterpiece Theater
, 11 May 2003
White Teeth is the first novel of writer Zadie Smith, a half-Jamaican, half-English graduate of Cambridge University who wrote most of the novel in free moments at university. In this book, she creates an amazing cast of varied characters whose lives become intertwined by the end of the novel.
Archie Jones-The protagonist of the novel, a gentle man of few words (Can’t say fairer than that, I should cocoa, etc.) and a loser at everything he tries, aside from his job at a firm specializing in folding papers. When the novel opens, he has recently become divorced from his wife Ophelia, a mad Italian woman whom he has been married to for 30 years. He makes important decisions by flipping a coin, such as deciding whether to commit suicide by gassing himself using a vacuum and his car’s exhaust fumes on New Year’s Eve. His attempts to kill himself are foiled by a Muslim butcher (Mo Hussein-Ishmael) who re-appears later in the novel. Full of a renewed sense of being after not killing himself, he decides to go to a New Year’s party, where he meets Clara Jones, a young black woman (half his age) with no front teeth. They are married soon after, and give birth to Irie Jones. Archie enjoys the odd beer and hanging out at Mickey’s pub with his war buddy Samad. IMHO, Archie represents England; a purebred, white English boy being introduced to the rest of the world.
Samad Iqbal-Bangladeshi-born Samad has an amazing intellect, graduating from university in Bangladesh and working as a scientist there, but is forced to work at his cousin’s Indian restaurant as a waiter when he comes to England. A self-described devout Muslim, he enjoys eating bacon and drinking alcohol. He returns to England to meet his arranged bride, Alsana, a much younger woman with a strong attitude. His main source of pride in life is Mangal Pande, a hero and a martyr who started the Great Indian Mutiny. He is struggling with living in England, while attempting to shelter his twin sons from the powerful influence of western culture.
Clara Iphigenia Bowden Jones-The wife of Archie Jones: a Jamaican woman and a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness. Her awkward teenage years are spent passing out pamphlets about her religion’s views on the upcoming apocalypse, until she meets Ryan Topps. Topps introduces her to marijuana and riding a motorcycle, which results in her crashing and losing her front teeth. Ryan Topps decides to become a Witness, while Clara joins a cult/commune away from home, where she meets her future husband on New Year’s Eve. She later gives birth to a daughter Irie and "learns what trouble really is".
Alsana Iqbal-A young Bangladeshi woman who was arranged to marry Samad before she was born. She has a fierce attitude, providing a voice of comic relief throughout the novel. She works as a tailor, while worrying about her adulterer husband and her two sons.
Marcus Chalfen-An intellectual, Jewish scientist working on a brave new experiment, FutureMouse. An often pompous academic, he is also the founder of the Chalfenist philosophy. Chalfenism is a gallimaufry of worldviews shared by the distinguished, yet liberal family.
Joyce Chalfen-The wife of Marcus, a horticulturist feminist and lapsed Catholic who is best known for writing several books in the 1970’s about introducing elements of the hippie lifestyle to one’s garden. She invites Irie and Millat into her home, and embraces both deeply, but takes on Millat as a special project, seeing her as another son to nurture.
Millat Iqbal-Second son of Samad and Alsana. The reader soon sees him as a miscreant, rebelling from his parents and authority from the beginning. He enjoys rap music and films featuring gangsters, especially the Mafia. His father gives up on him, denouncing him as an American poser who knows nothing of his father faith. Yet, he often acts as a religious charlatan who defends Islam when it is in his eyes attacked, but largely ignores it until he joins KEVIN.
Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mublasim Iqbal-First son of Samad and Alsana, who is taken away by his father and sent to Bangladesh at a young age. His father sends him there in hopes that he will learn more about his religion. In reaction to the harsh weather patterns and violence of daily life in Bangladesh, he rejects Islam, saying that it is a weak-minded defense for people whose views on life are based on destiny and fate. He joins Marcus Chalfen in working on FutureMouse hoping to help humanity be able to choose their own destinies.
Irie Jones-Only child of Archie and Clara. An awkward girl, with a large body, frizzy hair, and buck teeth. She has a crush on Millat, who sees her as nothing more than his sister, and attempts to find her roots, discovering nothing but imperialism and shame.
Josh Chalfen-Son of Marcus and Joyce. He rejects his Chalfenist beliefs and decides to join a radical animal rights organization (FATE-Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation) bent on destroying his father and his FutureMouse creation.
KEVIN-Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. A radical Islamic organization with an acronym problem. Its founding member Brother Ibrahim ad-Din Shukrallah (Monty Clyde Benjamin) is considered a troublemaker by the local authorities, along with the rest of the green-tie wearing brothers. The organization soon becomes a refuge for Millat, who denounces his ways to become a militant. Smith might be trying to mimick the bowtie-wearing Nation of Islam.
Abdul-Mickey O’Connell-An Iraqi who runs an Irish poolroom with no pool tables. He also has terrible acne, and is the brother of several other Abduls, who each have hyphenated names (Abdul-Colin, etc.).
Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret/Dr. Sick-French scientist who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. He is captured by a group of soldiers including Archie, who is pressured by Samad to kill him. I will not tell anything else for the simple fact that this character really gives the reader a great kick by the end of the novel.
Poppy Burt-Jones-Grade school teacher of Millat, Magid, and Irie who has an affair with Samad. She has a keen interest in Indian culture, and is the source of one of Samad’s great moral quandaries. He decides to send Magid instead of Millat to Bangladesh after the former sees Burt-Jones and Iqbal kissing after a meeting.
Hortense Bowden-Clara’s mother and a devout Jehovah’s Witness and student of Eschatology. She believes that the end of the world is near, and is intent on spending her last days spreading God’s word. She is the product of a relationship between her mother, a servant girl who was raped by her English tutor.
At the heart of the novel, however, is conflict. Conflict between religious people and the secular society in which they live, conflict between religion and science, father and son, black and white, and everything between. Perhaps the best microcosm of this head-on collision of diametrically opposed forces is a gift Samad gives to Poppy Burt-Jones at their first secret meeting. He gives her a coconut, which he explains is “A mixed-up thing. With juice like a fruit but hard like a nut. Brown and old on the outside, white and fresh on the inside. But the mix is not, I think, bad.”