Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

White Teeth

August 13, 2009 · 3 Comments

Since it was only optional and I’m guessing we won’t discuss it as a group in London, I thought I’d start a thread on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I just finished it yesterday, and I thought it was incredible. I’d say that Salaam Brick Lane probably gave me a much better idea of the diversity of immigrant experiences in London, but White Teeth addresses themes integral to all immigration with such well developed characters and a clever tone and format. Among the themes I thought most relevant to our London course are the malleability of identity (in a place as full of possibility and diversity as London), the differing eastern and western attitudes toward history (especially as it relates to Samad and his relationship with Archie), as well as the primacy of history (trying to run away from it or trying to hold onto it) in the lives of recent immigrants.

Did anyone else like White Teeth as much as I did? What else did you think was interesting or relevant? For those who read one of the other optional novels: have other writers drawn on these same themes when writing about immigrants in London?

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3 responses so far ↓

  •   Karl // Aug 15th 2009 at 16:25

    Excellent beginning to this thread, Aidan. The book was recommended to me and I said, “Do I really need another post-colonial novel to read.” The answer was clearly “yes.” I loved this book for many of the reasons you stated. What makes one’s identity? DNA? Religion? Place? Family? We’ll be bringing up these issues throughout the course. We will be discussing the book. Everyone will read one of the post-colonial novels, so we’ll all be sharing our impressions of the different books.

  •   hankreas12 // Aug 16th 2009 at 16:05


    I just finished White Teeth as well and loved it. I liked the way Smith wrote from all perspectives mocking nearly every character but also presenting arguments why each one was dysfunctional but never hopeless. There was plenty of humor peppered throughout the novel as well which she used both study and mock just about everything from religion to science to sex.

    One thing that struck me as significant is that each generation within the three families attempted to distance themselves as much as possible from the previous one. This connects to all three of the themes you brought up. In a place as diverse as London with plenty of opportunities available to everyone (both immigrant and non-immigrant alike), each individual wanted the opportunity to carve out their own identity. Whether this was for better or worse is for the reader to decide. Regardless, it seems to me that London was the perfect place to cast a story with so many twists and turns. If there is so much history and dysfunction taking place within three families than it both worries and excites me to see how much there is in the entire city.


  •   becca136 // Aug 17th 2009 at 17:38

    Henry, you made a really good point about how each generation wants to distance themselves from the previous one. I feel that this point is also relevant in looking at Great Expectations. Pip wanted so much to become a gentleman and forget his life at the forge. He not only wanted to better himself but he also wanted the chance to create his own identity. When he was Joe’s apprentice he felt trapped and enslaved because he was unable to establish himself.

    I find the adolescent realization that one’s parents aren’t as intelligent, cool, successful etc. as the adolescent once thought they were to be a key theme in many coming of age novels. This realization leads to the need for adolescents to formulate their own identity and establish their own personal goals.

    It really is amazing that a book written in the 19th century has themes and messages that are still relevant to today’s world and in today’s literature.


  •   Karl // Aug 18th 2009 at 17:27

    I love it that you are see the connections–the madness behind my method–in the selection of these texts!

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