79 pages 2 hours read

Zadie Smith

White Teeth

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

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Important Quotes

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“[Archie] was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: 

Pebble: Beach. 

Raindrop: Ocean. 

Needle: Haystack.” 

(Chapter 1, Page 10)

This encapsulates Archie’s character as it is first introduced. Everything about his looks, personality, and history seems as nondescript and insignificant as possible. He is neither particularly ugly nor particularly good-looking, he is mild-mannered and likable but not exceptionally virtuous, and his biggest claim to fame—having been an Olympic cyclist who tied for 13th place—still failed to distinguish him. By and large, Archie accepts his mediocrity; he does not feel the need to fight for recognition the same way that the novel’s immigrant characters do. Nevertheless, the dullness of Archie’s life is painful enough to him that it plays a role in his suicide attempt, and by the time the novel ends, he will have shown himself to have hidden depths. 

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“[W]hen Clara fell, knocking the teeth out of the top of her mouth, while Ryan stood up without a scratch, Ryan knew it was because God had chosen Ryan as one of the saved and Clara as one of the unsaved. Not because one was wearing a helmet and the other wasn’t. And had it happened the other way round, had gravity reclaimed Ryan’s teeth and sent them rolling down Primrose Hill like tiny enamel snowballs, well…you can bet your life that God, in Ryan’s mind, would have done a vanishing act.” 

(Chapter 2, Page 37)

Ryan’s reaction to the scooter accident (and the discussion of Sod’s Law that precedes it) highlight the tension between fate and chance in White Teeth. Ryan interprets the crash as destiny only because he walks away from it unscathed; if he had not, he—like the person who drops a piece of toast right-side up—would have seen the event as incidental rather than the work of a “defining force” (37) and consequently lost interest in God.