Zadie Smith prefaces White Teeth with the following quote: "What is past is prologue"- Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum. This statement sets the thematic mood for the novel, in which three different families of mixed ethnicity struggle with issues of heritage and legacy. Some characters, such as Samad, cling to the past obsessively, while others, such as Magid, attempt to reject it. The preface suggests that the past is inescapable, and encourages attention to details. By letting the wise words of the past speak before her, Smith acknowledges that "What is past is prologue" applies to writers as well. Thus, the ideas she examines in the next 500 pages have developed out of her own personal consideration of the past. In that sense, the preface credits all the authors who have inspired Smith to write this, her first novel.
The novel's main story spans the years 1975 to 2000, but in a flashback reaches as far back as 1907 and beyond. In the style of hysterical realism, Smith cuts between incidents, points of view, and eras with movie-like deftness, weaving these disparate stories into one narrative. In Smith's novel, past is not just prologue as the preface suggests, but is sometimes barely distinguishable from the present.
White Teeth is set mainly in Willesden, North London. On New Year's Day, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones (Archie) attempts to gas himself to death in his car. The butcher, Mo Hussein-Ishmael, saves Archie, and for the first time in his life, he feels worthwhile. In his new spirit of enthusiasm, Archie joins an End of the World party at a commune where he meets Clara Bowden, a gorgeous and captivating Jamaican woman who is missing her upper teeth. Although Archie is twice Clara's age, the two wed soon after this first meeting.
Smith takes us to Clara's teenage years, when she was an awkward and unattractive Jehovah's Witness. She strayed from her religion when she began dating a boy named Ryan Topps. Ironically, Ryan eventually became a Jehovah's Witness and tried to win Clara back to the Church. While riding on his scooter, they crashed into a tree, knocking out Clara's upper teeth.
In 1975, Archie and Clara are married as Samad and Alsana Iqbal look on. Samad and Archie met when they served together in World War II, and are best friends. Samad works at an Indian restaurant, and Alsana sews clothing for an S&M shop. Because of racial differences, the Iqbal's and Jones's are unlikely friends. Clara soon becomes pregnant with a daughter, Irie, and Alsana becomes pregnant with twin boys, Magid and Millat. Soon, both women realize that they know very little about their older husbands.
Smith takes us back to World War II, when Archie and Samad first meet. They become friends out of proximity and necessity after all the other men in their tank are killed. Without a radio, they do not know the war is over, and therefore police the local Bulgarian village. Along with a platoon of Russian soldiers, they capture Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, a scientist and Nazi conspirator. Samad wins custody of Dr. Perret in a poker game and devises a plan for he and Archie to become heroes by killing him. While Samad is high on morphine, Archie marches Dr. Perret away with the intention of killing him. Samad hears a shot ring out, and Archie returns with a bullet lodged in his thigh.
In the present, Irie, Magid, and Millat attend the same elementary school. Samad takes overzealous control of his sons' educations, demanding changes at every governer's meeting (note that the British spelling is "governer", rather than the American "governor"). After one meeting, Samad meets the children's music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones and is attracted to her immediately. Samad pursues a relationship with her until one day, Magid and Millat catch him with her. He decides that the only way to make sure his sons grow up to be honorable traditional men is to send them to Bangladesh. However, a lack of funds forces him to choose only one son to send away. He kidnaps Magid with Archie's help, and sends him to be raised with his family in Bangladesh. When Alsana discovers his actions, she resolves never to give Samad a straight answer to another question.
Time passes and the children enter their teenage years. Letters from Magid show that he continues to be a precocious, thoughtful boy. In one letter, Magid mentions he broke his nose. Samad taunts Millat, whom he thinks is a "good-for-nothing," saying that now the brothers look different as well as being different. Millat laughs so hard that he trips and breaks his own nose. During a terrible hurricane, the Iqbal's flee to the Jones's supposedly weatherproof house. When a tree crashes through the roof, the adults scramble to re-secure the house while Irie and Millat sneak out to go walking in the storm.
We flash forward two years: Millat burns books and other property at a protest. After witnessing this on television, Alsana burns all of Millat's belongings to teach him a lesson. We flash forward to New Year's Eve, 1998: At O'Connell's pub, Samad convinces Mickey to hang a portrait of his great-grandfather, Mangal Pande, on the wall. Samad recounts the story of how Pande shot the first bullet in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He takes responsibility for spreading word of Pande's legacy, since history remembers him as a "pandy," the word coined after him. Samad recalls how he wept with joy when he finally found an account of Pande's story that valorized him. Samad also notes that he does not approve of resorting to violence, as any man can be driven to kill. Just as the clock strikes midnight, Archie says mysteriously: "And there will be people he will save."
The year is 1990. In her desire to attract Millat, the now full-figured Irie attempts to have her hair straightened. However, the procedure burns off all of her hair. She gets fake hair to replace it, but it rips out of her head. Irie goes looking for Millat at Glenard Oak School to warn him about the new Raid Committee against marijuana. When Millat dismisses her, she walks away with his joint and stops to talk to a "nerd" named Joshua Chalfen. Millat comes upon them just as Irie is passing the joint to Joshua. They all get caught by the Raid Committee, and as punishment are forced to study together twice a week at Joshua's house. At the Chalfen's, Millat becomes the pet project of Joshua's mother, Joyce Chalfen, an extremely nurturing horticulturalist. Irie becomes friends with Joshua's father, Marcus Chalfen, a genetic engineer preparing to present a project called FutureMouse, in which he has altered a mouse's genes so that it develops certain cancers at specific times in its life. Meanwhile, Alsana and Clara worry that their children spend too much time with the Chalfen's. However, the children's grades improve so much that the Iqbal's and Jones's throw a party. Clara goes to the Chalfen's house to thank Joyce, who rudely asserts that Irie's intellect could not come from her parents. In shock, Clara says it must come from her own grandfather, Captain Charlie Durham. She regrets this as soon as she says it, because in her words, he was really a "no-good djam fool bwoy."
Smith brings us back to early-20th century Jamaica. Clara's grandmother, Ambrosia, begins taking lessons from Captain Charlie Durham, who impregnates her. When he is called away on a mission, he leaves her in the hands of Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard, who later founds the Glenard Oak School that Irie, Magid and Millat attend. When Ambrosia's pregnancy becomes obvious, she is passed along to a Jehovah's Witness named Mrs. Brenton and soon becomes an ardent member of the faith. On the day of the 1907 earthquake, Glenard tries to fondle Ambrosia in a church. Just then, the earthquake hits: Ambrosia gives birth to Hortense Bowden as a falling pillar kills Glenard. Durham returns for Ambrosia, but cannot get permission for her to board a rescue ship with him. As a result of his complaints to the Jamaican governer, the American aid ships are sent away from Jamaica, dooming thousands.
In the present, Magid and Marcus Chalfen become pen pals and establish a mutual admiration. Meanwhile, Millat leaves his love of Western pop culture and promiscuity behind and becomes a prominent member of the Islamic fundamentalist group, KEVIN. Irie discovers that Marcus has rejected her when she reads one of their letters. In it, he states that the only science for which she is suited is dentistry. Irie resolves to become a dentist and decides to volunteer in Africa before attending dental school. When she approaches Clara, who is in bed, to ask her permission, she knocks over the glass containing Clara's false teeth and they bite into her foot. Irie, who until then does not know her mother's teeth are false, takes this as proof that her parents do not respect her, and flees to her grandmother's house. Upon arriving at Hortense's house, she discovers that Ryan Topps lives with Hortense and helps care for her. Irie is not tempted to become a Jehovah's Witness, but feels connected to her heritage by looking through family pictures and other memorabilia. She is overjoyed when Hortense invites her to Jamaica for Judgment Day, 2000. Meanwhile, Joshua Chalfen betrays his father by joining one of his staunchest enemies, the animal rights group, FATE.
Magid returns to London for the first time since his childhood. Millat refuses to see him because he supports FutureMouse, which Millat and KEVIN are protesting. Magid stays with the Chalfen's, where he becomes Marcus's prodigy. Irie is assigned the task of bringing the twins together. When she goes to see Millat, the two have sex on his prayer mat, after which he is ashamed. Furious, Irie marches straight to Magid and has sex with him too. After that, the twins finally meet, but discover that their differences are irreconcilable.
The characters prepare for the FutureMouse opening conference in their respective ways. Millat helps KEVIN plot a protest and Joshua does the same with FATE. Hortense and Ryan prepare to stage a hunger strike and try to warn Irie not to be friends with Marcus Chalfen, while Magid accepts genetic engineering as the new God. The novel concludes on the day of the FutureMouse conference, New Year's Eve, 1992. The characters head to the conference with their respective groups and plans. Joshua plans to humiliate his father, Millat plans to follow through with violence in a way Pande never could, Magid plans to support his mentor, and Irie, the Iqbal's, and the Jones's plan to quench their curiosity. Irie is pregnant and even a paternity test cannot tell whether the father is Magid or Millat, since their genes are identical.
The FutureMouse conference takes place at the Perret Institute. As Marcus Chalfen delivers his speech, Joshua and Millat wait to make their moves. Hortense and the other Jehovah's Witnesses sing loudly in the hallway. Samad goes out to hush them, but when he arrives, doesn't have the heart to make them stop. When he returns, it suddenly strikes him that the founder of the Perret Institute and the oldest scientist on Marcus Chalfen's panel is Dr. Perret, the nazi he captured during World War II. Enraged that Archie did not kill him all those years ago, Samad runs over and begins cursing Archie. Just then, Millat advances on the table of scientists with a gun. Without thinking, Archie jumps in front of him and takes a bullet in the thigh. As he falls, he knocks over the mouse's glass cage, and it escapes. At the novel's end, the narrator presents us with different "endgames" in the style of television. Magid and Millat both serve community service for Millat's crime, since witnesses identify both as the culprit. Joshua and Irie end up together and join Hortense in Jamaica in the year 2000. Mickey opens up the previously men's-only O'Connell's pub to women, and Archie and Samad finally invite their wives along with them. Smith leaves us with Archie's thoughts as the mouse escapes at the FutureMouse conflict. Even though he knows the mouse is doomed to a life of various cancers, he watches it escape thinking: "Go on my son!"