White Teeth

White Teeth Themes


Throughout the novel, teeth symbolize people. Teeth are white no matter what a person's race, making them a universal symbol of humanity. By the same token, they are enduring and preserved in the skull long after we die. Therefore, teeth leave a particularly long legacy and connect people throughout time. The actions of specific teeth represent the way we experience life. For example, canines are "the ripping teeth" involved in an initial bite. In a positive sense, they allow us to experience the sensuous things life offers, while in a negative sense, they are a predator's teeth and thus are threatening. Alsana likens the Chalfens' influence on Millat and Irie to the Chalfens ripping the children apart, destroying the qualities in them that are important to their own parents. Molars are the grinding teeth, which help us digest our food. Metaphorically, they help us process the information we take in and turn it into our own actions. In the chapter entitled "Molars," Magid and Millat catch Samad with Poppy as they bite into apples with their white teeth. Here, Smith uses molars to reflect that the twins "digest" their father's actions and are therefore destined to follow in his footsteps.

Often, teeth cause trouble, such as when Clara's upper teeth are knocked out of her mouth, or when Magid and Millat catch Samad with Poppy. Furthermore, teeth are easily lost. When Clara loses her upper teeth in the scooter accident, she simultaneously is rejecting the Jehovah's Witnesses and thus losing part of her identity. In the violence following Indira Ghandi's death, we are told that in the streets of India, there are "teeth, teeth everywhere, scattered throughout the land, mingling with the dust." As the people of India lose themselves to violence and intolerance, they knock out each other's teeth, forgetting that teeth unite human beings, and are common to all.

Smith uses the term "root canal" to describe the examination of someone's past. Even though teeth are universal, they are nothing without their roots. Samad tries to send Magid back to his Bengali roots, but as the narrator mocks: "You would get nowhere telling [Samad]... that the first sign of tooth decay is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums. Roots were what saved, the ropes one throws out to rescue drowning me, to Save their Souls." By salvaging a tooth's root, as in a root canal, one does not necessarily save the tooth. Indeed, even sending Magid back to Bangladesh does not prevent him from becoming an English intellectual.

Irie is the character perhaps most frustrated by roots. She despises how the past and cultural heritage complicate and restrict the present. Therefore, she feels particularly deceived when she discovers Clara's upper teeth are false. Clara's false teeth are rootless, representing her lack of connection to her heritage. Therefore, in order to find her roots, Irie seeks out Hortense. In light of Clara's frustration with roots, it is fitting that she resolves to become a dentist. In Smith's metaphor, teeth are people. Therefore a dentist mends relationships between people and keeps them healthy.

Heritage and Legacy

Smith opens the novel with the quote, "What is past is prologue." Here, she sets the stage for a story that connects the generations. However, heritage and legacy do not run in a smooth, straight line, just as Smith's narrative veers from the direct. While legacy may not be easily definable, in White Teeth, it is certainly inescapable. Let us take the characters of Magid and Millat as examples. Smith does explain that Magid and Millat are destined to honor their roots, to "more and more eloquently express their past," because as "[the sons of] immigrants, [they] cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow." However, even if the twins' actions are always products of their past, they have the power to make their own decisions.

Magid is born precocious, overly serious, and bordering on genius. His intelligence threatens Samad who wants his sons to fulfill Mangal Pande's legacy of devotion to the Bengali people. One would think (as Samad does) that sending Magid to Bangladesh would secure such a legacy. However, Magid develops into an English intellectual, espousing the progressive views Samad fears instead of the traditional ones he intended Magid to learn. However, Magid is indeed his father's son in that he is a storyteller. He is compelled to pass his wisdom on to others just as Samad feels compelled to share the legacy of Mangal Pande, whether it is relevant to the moment or not.

Samad has little hope for Millat to bear his legacy, as he considers him a "good-for-nothing." However, by becoming a controversial figure and standing up for his beliefs, he honors the story dearest to Samad: Pande's bravery. Like Pande, Millat refuses to be told what to do, and his attempt to confront authority with violence does not win him much notoriety. In fact, he pays for his crime with community service.

Irie despises how heritage complicates and restricts the present. For this reason, she embraces Chalfenism with its focus on the present and future. However, as the daughter of mediocre Archie and root-rejecting Clara, she also longs for a heritage and therefore seeks out Hortense. Although she is reluctant to admit it, Irie's thirst for knowledge connects her to the Bowden tradition just as she is connected to Chalfenism. At the end of the novel, it appears as though Irie has found a happy medium between Bowdenism and Chalfenism, as she is in her "homeland," Jamaica, but with Joshua Chalfen. Irie's daughter is the ultimate symbol of heritage's inescapability. She is described as "free" from the past because she will never know her father's identity. However, in a sense, she has the richest heritage of all the characters: English, afro-Caribbean, and Indian. Irie is destined to follow a collage of a heritage, assembled from all the cultures that make her and surround her.


Mad characters make cameo appearances throughout White Teeth. The first is Ophelia Diagilo, Archie's first wife. Supposedly, Archie drove her mad with his indecision and mediocrity, leading her down the path of insanity and divorce. By naming this character Ophelia, Smith connects her to Shakespeare's quintessential hysterical female character. Archie is certainly no Hamlet, but he purportedly drives his Ophelia to the brink. She is the catalyst to Archie's downfall and attempted suicide, but is also the key to his salvation. If Archie never attempted suicide, he would never have been saved, gained a new, exuberant lease on life, and met Clara at the commune.

J.P. Hamilton and Mad Mary also help drive the narrative through their minor interactions with the main characters. J.P. Hamilton lectures the children about keeping their teeth healthy. While his madness eventually makes them run away, his wisdom is genuine. He says, "If you do not brush your teeth, they will fall out, in other words, If you do not pay heed to where you came from, you will not know where you are going." Hamilton interjects the point from Smith's preface, that the past always influences the present. Magid and Millat cannot know that soon after meeting J.P. Hamilton, they will catch Samad with Poppy and therefore be destined to follow Samad's rebelliousness. Mad Mary accosts Samad and Poppy as they walk, as though she knows they are doing wrong. Her mad behavior, including shouting and spitting, discredit most anything she says. However, she makes Samad and Poppy wary of themselves, as they should be, given their illicit relationship. Indeed, their relationship is ruined soon after their encounter with Mad Mary, when Magid and Millat see them in the park.

At the end of the novel, it is Millat who seems to have gone mad, as he attempts murder. However, Magid might also be mad. He considers genetic engineering the new God, and as Marcus Chalfen's prodigy, it is quite likely that he will become a "mad scientist." However unlike Millat's madness, this madness in Magid would be creative instead of destructive.


Smith lays out three different manifestations of fundamentalism, carefully distinguishing them from "fundamentals." In the first two, KEVIN and FATE, many members have ulterior motives. For example, KEVIN satisfies Millat's desire to be a gangster, and some members, such as Mo Hussein-Ishmael, join just to gain status. Similarly, Joshua and other members of FATE are involved just to get closer to either Jolie or Crispin. Joshua is more concerned with 'sticking it to' Marcus than abolishing animal cruelty. Therefore, many of the KEVIN and FATE members are more interested in the simultaneous security and thrill of fundamentalism than in what makes up their doctrine. Because Millat and Joshua both rebel against their fathers in becoming fundamentalists, they are rejecting their fundamentals (their roots) for fundamentalism.

In sharp contrast, Hortense and Ryan Topps believe wholeheartedly in being Jehovah's Witnesses, and are content living unglamorous, isolated lives with few thrills. They are true fundamentalists without ulterior motives. To them, there is no separation between doctrine and life. All of the types of fundamentalism in the novel contrast with the mundane lives of Archie and Samad. When all the different fundamentalist groups are present at the FutureMouse conference, we see how limiting their views are. Their only goal is to make others see their perspective, and their involvement with fundamentalism separates them from each other: Millat from Magid, Joshua from Marcus, and Ryan from developing a 'normal' relationship with a woman.

Nature vs. Nurture

In White Teeth, Smith enters the age-old Nature/Nurture debate, which is rooted in the biological sciences. Considering Smith's treatment of the twins, Magid and Millat, one might conclude that she privileges nurture over nature--that is, experience over the intrinsic. While Magid and Millat are genetically identical, they are irreconcilably different. Magid is intellectual and obedient, while Millat is derelict and rebellious. Because they are identical twins, their differences must be attributed to their experiences: Magid's youth in Bangladesh and Millat's at home.

Smith presents another Nature/Nurture dichotomy with Joyce and Marcus Chalfen. Joyce is a nurturer and Marcus is a believer in nature. Joyce is a fervent horticulturalist and mother; just as she believes she can take any plant and nurture it to the desired effect, she believes she can take a wayward teenager such as Millat and turn him around. She attributes Millat and Irie's shortcomings to lack of a strong father figure, implying that they were not nurtured correctly. Joyce indeed wins points for the nurture side of the debate by helping Millat improve his grades. Also, by ignoring her own son Joshua, and thus not nurturing him, she lets him grow "wild."

Marcus represents the nature side of the Nature/Nurture debate. He devotes his life to the idea that altering something's nature alters it permanently. He makes sure that the FutureMouse mouse cannot escape its nature, which is to develop the cancers he programs into its genes. He also rejects Irie in favor of Magid, believing that the former is predisposed to succeed as a genetic engineer while the latter is better off as a dentist.

Chance and Coincidence

Smith introduces chance and coincidence constantly, which can be used to either justify or discredit the idea of destiny. For example, after Magid and Millat are separated, they are subject to constant coincidences, from breaking their noses to defying death in the same moment. However we are also told that they are destined to carry out their family's legacy. With Magid and Millat, chance and fate are confounded. Things that happen by chance will supposedly lead them toward an inescapable destiny.

Archie is always leaving his most important decisions up to chance: whether or not he will kill Perret, whether Magid and Millat should reunite, and whether or not he should kill himself. Archie is indecisive, so ironically chance--Heads or Tails--provides him with certainty. Because little excites Archie to the point of making a decision, he is content to relinquish control of his life. Thus, it is most out of character when he jumps in front of Millat's gun in the novel's last moment. Archie's coin-flip decision to commit suicide and his impulsive choice to risk his life at the FutureMouse conference, points our attention to how significantly Archie develops throughout the novel. At the end of the novel, instead of trusting his decisions to a coin, Archie takes a bigger chance by trusting himself. He is rewarded with the knowledge that he has truly and purposefully saved a life.

Race and Ethnicity

Smith's multicultural cast of characters is a cross-section of modern London. In the simplest sense, we have: English, Jamaicans, and Bengalis. However, Smith is too realistic in her examinations of human nature to leave the issue of race and ethnicity so clear-cut. Her characters are caught between different cultures. When Clara is a teenager she, like Millat, is trapped between honoring her parents' heritage and exploring the Western pop culture around her. When she strays from her heritage the first time, her teeth are knocked out. When she strays a second time by marrying Archie, Hortense disowns her. Millat faces similar rejection when he strays from Samad's plan for him to have traditional, Bengali views. Samad labels him a "good-for-nothing" while doting on Magid. As though in revenge, Millat becomes a militant fundamentalist. Magid is also caught between cultures, but strays in the opposite direction. He finds inspiration in the secular, embracing genetic engineering as the new form of God. At the end of the novel, Samad finds himself caught between two sons who, in their opposite ways, betray his concept of Bengali identity.

Irie is caught between cultures in her very genetics: she is half Jamaican and half English. Unlike Samad, Archie and Clara have no burning desire for their child to embrace a certain cultural heritage. However, as Irie tries to establish her individuality as a teenager, she finds herself longing to know more about her ethnicity. While flatly rejecting reliance on the past and embracing Chalfenism, Irie still wants to know what it is to be from Jamaica. After researching the family files at Hortense's house, she begins to consider Jamaica her "homeland." Irie's daughter has the most complex race or ethnicity of all the characters, though we meet her only briefly. She represents the unification of all the character's ethnicities, as she is English, Jamaican, and Bengali.

Other manifestations of mixed ethnicity in the novel include Samad's restaurant, where the food is so anglified it is no longer Indian, and O'Connell's, an Irish pub run by a Middle-Eastern Muslim with a distinctly American nickname.