79 pages 2 hours read

Zadie Smith

White Teeth

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

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The Nature of History

From the very beginning of White Teeth, Smith suggests that it is impossible to understand who a person is without also understanding their “roots”—the personal, familial, and cultural past they came from. This is the underlying premise of the novel’s “root canal” chapters, as well as its many shorter flashbacks. While explaining Clara’s decision to marry Archie, for example, Smith notes that “[Beautiful women] do not descend, as was once supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings. Clara was from somewhere. She had roots” (24). Although the flashback that follows reveals Clara is in fact running away from her past when she meets Archie, in some ways this only serves to underscore how much power the past still has over her. The choices she makes are a direct response to the loss of her childhood faith, with Archie serving as a substitute for what she never found:

[T]he all-enveloping bear hug of the Savior, the One who was Alpha and Omega, both the beginning and the end; the man who was meant to take her away from all this, from the listless reality of life in a ground-floor flat in Lambeth (37–38).

For much of White Teeth, history functions as a form of destiny, and its influence over the present seems inescapable.