White Teeth

White Teeth Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-13

The third section is entitled Irie 1990, 1907 and opens with the following quote from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: "In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future?"

Chapter 11- The Miseducation of Irie Jones

1990: Irie, now fifteen and very full-figured, keeps dreaming about an ad she saw on a lamppost: "Lose weight to earn money." In class, her desire to lose weight and her attraction to the dangerous and handsome Millat distracts her from Shakespeare's Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." Millat is thrown out of class and the teacher corrects Irie when she suggests the poem elegizes a black woman. In fact, it is about a dark-haired (rather than dark-skinned) woman. At the end of class, Irie receives a note that says: "By William Shakespeare: ODE TO LEITITA AND ALL MY KINKY-HAIRED BIG-ASS BITCHES." She goes to a black salon to have her hair straightened and dyed red to impress Millat. Because Irie washed her hair recently, there is no dirt to shield her head from the ammonia relaxant. She passes out from the pain, and wakes up to find that her hair is short like a boy's. To compensate for this unfortunate outcome, she is given a fake, straight, red mane. She goes to Millat's house, but he is out. Samad enters and is distressed by the latest letter from Magid, which contains a picture of him shaking hands with the writer R.V. Saraswati, and describes how much Magid admires him. Saraswati convinced Magid that life is not a result of fate, as Indians believe, but is instead the result of human action. Samad is furious, but Alsana reminds him: "You have to let them make their own mistakes." Before Irie leaves, she pulls out her fake hair.

Through the smoky grounds of Glenard Oak School, Irie seeks Millat so she can save him from the Raid Committee that she heard Archie mention. However, when she finds him, he is immersed in an argument with an old friend, who has joined the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN). She takes the joint Millat is smoking, but leaves when he refuses to give her an audience. She stops to talk to the nerd, Josh Chalfen, and passes him the joint. When Magid finally comes looking for his marijuana, all three are caught by the Raid Committee, which was Archie's suggestion. For punishment, they must study together for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday after school.

The school was founded by Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard, who brought Jamaicans to England so they might teach their devotion to God to the English and adopt their work ethic in turn. He was crushed to death in a 1907 earthquake in Jamaica as Irie's grandmother looked on. The current headmaster is delighted at the idea of bringing 'disadvantaged and advantaged' children together, and like Glenard, hopes to expand the idea into a program.

Chapter 12- Canines: The Ripping Teeth

Joyce Chalfen, an English horticulturalist and writer, met her husband in college. Marcus Chalfen, then a student, became a prominent Jewish genetic engineer working primarily with mice. Their marriage is stable and happy, and they have four very intellectual sons, including Josh Chalfen. The Chalfen's are happily each other's only friends. Ever since her youngest son became old enough to take care of himself, Joyce has directed her maternal instincts towards her garden. Irie and Millat are thrust into this household for their punishment. From the moment they walk in the door, the Chalfen's buzz excitedly with conversation so direct that many would construe it as inappropriate. For example, they talk openly about sex and race, and Marcus tells Irie: "You are a big girl.". Irie is "enamored [of the Chalfen's] after five minutes"; she loves their middle-class comfort and happiness. Joyce is fascinated instantly with Millat. She thinks he is beautiful and sees him as a charity case. She tells him and Irie that their problems stem from lack of good father figures. Irie does not mention the Chalfen's to her parents, knowing that they may not be comfortable with her spending time with a middle-class family.

We skip to a later visit to the Chalfen household: Joyce is increasingly taken with, and Josh increasingly annoyed by, Millat. The more Millat abuses her generosity by swearing, smoking, drinking, and destroying, the more she is enamored with him. Conversely, Irie's improvement makes Joyce lose interest in her. Therefore, Irie begins spending time with Marcus and learns about his genetic manipulation of mouse embryos. When she scolds Marcus for keeping his files so messy, he offers to pay her to organize them. Alsana and Clara finally talk about their shared annoyance at Millat and Irie's spending time with the Chalfen's. Clara merely wishes Irie would spend more time at home, but Alsana rants about how they are trying to anglify her son: "they are like birds with teeth, with sharp little canines--they don't just steal, they rip apart!" The two mothers send Neena over to the Chalfen's to investigate, and she brings along her girlfriend, Maxine. Joyce and Marcus are fascinated by the lesbians, and ask inappropriate questions. They also insult Neena's family. Neena reports back to Alsana and Clara that the Chalfen's are insane.

After Irie and Millat show great improvement in their grades, the two families hold a barbecue. Millat's KEVIN friends come, much to Samad's annoyance. Alsana refuses to thank Joyce, but Clara goes over to the Chalfen household to do so. Joyce asserts rudely that the children's intellect must come from their genes, since they were not raised well. She asks Clara where Irie gets her intellect, and Clara tells her that it must be from her white grandfather, Captain Charlie Durham. Clara regrets saying this immediately after leaving, knowing that the black women in her family were far wiser than her grandfather. He "sacrificed a thousand people because he wanted to save one woman he never really knew. [He] was a no-good djam fool bwoy."

Chapter 13- The Root Canals of Hortense Bowden

This chapter begins and ends with the opinion: "A little English education can be a dangerous thing." Alsana says of the Chalfen's: "The English are the only people ... who want to teach you and steal from you at the same time." Clara agrees, thinking of how her mother, Hortense Bowden, was sired and born. Captain Charlie Durham impregnated Clara's grandmother, Hortense, when he was renting a room from her mother. He began to educate her, but was assigned to quell Marcus Garvey's printer's strike in Kingston, and left her in the care of Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard. Once her pregnancy became obvious, he handed her over to a Mrs. Brenton, who inducted her into the Jehovah's Witnesses. Ambrosia learned the scripture so fervently that Hortense knew every passage by the time she was born. One day Sir Edmund began to fondle her in a Spanish church, to which he had brought her under the pretense of educating her. Just then, the earthquake struck. A falling statue killed Sir Edmund and Ambrosia gave birth to Hortense. Durham returned the next day to find that the Americans, not the English, were heading the relief effort. He sent word to Ambrosia, and asked the Jamaican governor's permission to take her out of the country with him. However, the governor would not allow her on any of the exclusive outgoing ships. Angered, Durham insulted the governor, saying that the Americans' leadership and power proved his own lack of both. The governor sent the Americans back to Cuba, effectively quashing all hope of help for thousands of injured and homeless Jamaicans. Meanwhile, Ambrosia (who thought Judgment Day had come) prayed fervently and sent a passage from the Bible as her reply to Durham: "I will fetch my knowledge from afar."


In Chapters 11-13, the characters' stories begin to weave together more intricately, even crossing over generations. Smith leads off this section with the phrase "criss cross cause and effect," demonstrating that not only do stories from different generations connect, but the connection is not necessarily chronological. In other words, a past event can affect a present event, and a present event can cast a light on a past event. The section is titled, "Irie 1990, 1907." Indeed, Irie is alive in the year 1990, but it is her namesake, Ambrosia, who was alive in 1907. Therefore from the very title of the section, we expect Irie's life to 'criss-cross' with her ancestors' so that 'roots' are not always distinguishable. The title of Chapter 13 reinforces this idea - it is not 'the root canal,' but 'the root canals of Hortense Bowden' that we examine. Whereas with Mangal Pande, the plural 'canals' referred to the lack of clarity in his story, here it refers to Hortense, Ambrosia, Clara, and Irie's roots being indistinguishable. As the narrator reaffirms in Chapter 11, "A legacy is not something you can give or take by choice, and there are no certainties in this sticky business of inheritance."

Smith sets the stage for this 'criss-crossing' in Irie's family with the saying, "A little English education can be a dangerous thing." There are three different types of English educations in Chapters 11-13. First, Irie receives an in-class education, in which she finds no place for herself in Shakespeare's English poetry. Next, there is Durham and Glenard's evangelical brand of education, which attempts to 'enlighten' the non-English by pairing them with the English. This extends to Irie and Millat when the headmaster pairs them with Joshua Chalfen. Like Durham and Glenard, the headmaster wants to 'enlighten' the disadvantaged by having them learn from the advantaged.

Smith forces us to ask why English education is dangerous in its many forms, and for whom? At first, it seems education is dangerous for Irie and Ambrosia because it gets them into sexual trouble. Ambrosia gets pregnant as a result of her 'lessons' with Durham, and Irie's "miseducation" about her appearance-that it is insufficient-drives her to sexualize herself according to a white perception of beauty. To differing degrees, "a little English education" forces the Bowden women to confront their sexuality. However it is also "dangerous" for their families, from whom they grow apart as a result of their education. Ambrosia, Irie, Magid, and Millat's educations separate them from their parents. As Alsana explains, "the English ... want to teach you and steal from you at the same time." As Ambrosia takes lessons, she becomes more than a maid and therefore more than her mother. The same is true with Irie; as she becomes more enraptured with the Chalfens' way of living and educates herself in their ways, she reaches 'above' her parents, striving for what is middle-class and alluring. In this way, Marcus Chalfen is her Charlie Durham. While Millat abuses the Chalfens' kindness, he too separates further from his family. Magid's English education (despite his living in Bangladesh) is also dangerous in this way. By choosing innovation over tradition, Magid grows away from Samad.

From another angle, the characters' English educations save them from despair, or at least anonymity. Because Ambrosia is educated and brought into the Church, she maintains her faith and hope after the earthquake, while thousands of Jamaicans despair over their lack of aid. Although Smith makes it clear that Irie is her mother's, Hortense's, and Ambrosia's daughter, she is also Archie's. This means that mediocrity is encoded right into every one of her cells. Because it is so different from the mundane, tedious lifestyle to which she is accustomed, Irie is enchanted by the relentlessly academic Chalfen's. Unlike her family, they live in the present, unhindered by the past, and strive for personal growth. By learning from the extraordinary, opinionated, progressive Chalfen's, Irie is in a sense 'saved' from becoming too much like her father. Like Ambrosia, Irie resolves to fetch her knowledge from "afar," outside her own family.

Canine teeth are a good metaphor for education, because like education, they can be construed as enabling or disabling. Just as canines allow us to bite into things and experience them in a rich way, education allows the characters to sink their teeth into life and enrich their experience. At the same time, education can be like foreign canines, ripping into the characters and stealing bits of them away. Clara feels the bite of education most sharply when she lies to Joyce Chalfen about Irie's intellect. By assuming that Clara is not smart, she rips all the rich heritage of the Bowden women away from her and Irie.