by Zadie Smith
Alfred Archibald Jones
For a character who is the subject of the very beginning and the very end of this novel—not to mention lots and lots of the middle too—Archie doesn't seem to have much going for him. He works for a company that folds paper. Thrilling, right? He's so mediocre that he even drove his first wife, Ophelia, insane with boredom. Literally insane.
So our man Archie is kind of a failure at life… and, actually, at death. When we first meet him, he's in the middle of failing to commit suicide. Smith writes of Archie:
No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It's for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios:
Pebble : Beach
Raindrop : Ocean
Needle : Haystack (1
See, as an English-heritage white dude in England, Archie is about as common as they come. This normalness is part of Archie's charm. And part of his function in the novel, we might add. Unlike his BFF, Samad, or his second wife, Clara, he doesn't stick out in suburban England. He fits in.
Like Smith said, he's just one pebble on the beach… the kind you can step on without even noticing. His wife barely even notices him, and she definitely isn't in love with him. In the very beginning of the book, we learn that she basically married the guy because she wanted to marry someone and get the heck outta Dodge. His is not very romantic or ambitious: "No white knight, then, this Archibald Jones. No aims, no hopes, no ambitions. A man whose greatest pleasures were English breakfasts and DIY" (3.11).
Don't Mind Me, I'm Just Here to Provide Contrast
You can think of Archie as a blank slate that other people fill in. He's the unnoticed, unremarkable man who's just like most other Englishmen. He's what those literary types and television reviewers like to call an everyman, if you catch our drift.
So, while pretty much every other character in White Teeth is busy struggling to define his or her identity, Archie's just workin' at his paper-folding business and hanging out at O'Connell's with Samad. Oh, and flipping a coin as a way of making major decisions. Even life and death decisions. Real ones, not metaphoric ones.
One day, Archie's bestie gets pissed about his lack of convictions and confronts him about it:
"You don't stand for anything, Jones," continued Samad. "Not for a faith, not for a politics. Not even for your country. How your lot ever conquered my lot is a bloody mystery. You're a cipher, no?"
"And an idiot. What are you going to tell your children when they ask who you are, what you are? Will you know? Will you ever know?" (5.335-339).
The thing is, Archie doesn't have to know. The "point" of Archie's character in the novel is often to provide contrast to the incessant soul-searching of his family and friends. Crucially, Archie doesn't have to do this same soul-searching because of his normalness. He's just a good ol' white English boy in a country of white Englishmen, and that is actually quite a privilege.
As Archie tells us:
"I'm a Jones, you see. 'Slike a 'Smith.' We're nobody . . . My father used to say: 'We're the chaff, boy, we're the chaff.' Not that I've ever been much bothered, mind. Proud all the same, you know. Good honest English stock." (5.129)
Only someone who's "normal" in all the right ways can be proud of being "chaff"—i.e., of being worthless.
You might say that Archie's biggest act of bravery in the novel is saving Dr. Perret's life—twice. First, he doesn't shoot the guy when Samad tells him to. But even considering killing some dude just because someone else wants you to is pretty spineless.
Plus, Archie only lets Dr. Perret live because he talks Archie's ear off about Archie's duty to humanity. So, really, Archie just ends up following Dr. Perret's orders instead of Samad's. And don't forget that Archie is more than happy to lie to Samad about the whole mess. Archie lets Samad think that he killed Dr. Perret for fifty years… until the Doctor shows up at the FutureMouse conference.
Then, there's that whole bit about Archie taking a bullet for the Doctor at the end. But is he doing this out of some Big Concern for people and science? Or is he just sticking to the same decision he made earlier, about saving the Doctor's life?
"You Say Po-tay-to, I Say Po-tah-to": The Samad and Archie Story
We know that Archie and Samad became friends when they served together—and then didn't serve together, because they were unaware the war was over—in WWII. The narrator of White Teeth explains their unlikely friendship like this:
It was precisely the kind of friendship an Englishman makes on holiday, that he can make only on holiday. A friendship that crosses class and color, a friendship that takes as its basis physical proximity and survives because the Englishman assumes the physical proximity will not continue. (5.107)
Alas, Archie and Samad choose to be physically proximal a whole lot in this book. You know, the two kind of need each other. Archie needs Samad to spice things up, as well as to indulge his stuckness. And while Samad might have his own reasons for being obsessed with his family history and the good ol' days more generally, he's equally immobile—in his life, and in his beliefs about the way things should be.
Yep, we think that both men keep each other around largely to justify their mutual inflexibility. Need some examples? Well, consider the fact that Archie and Samad always go to the same pub together:O'Connell's. The narrator notes:
And that's what Archie loved about O'Connell's. Everything was remembered, nothing was lost. History was never revised or reinterpreted, adapted or whitewashed. It was as solid and as simple as the encrusted egg on the clock. (8.115)
Clearly, Archie would prefer that nothing ever changed. Lucky for him, pretty much nothing between Archie and Samad ever does. You really can't have one of these guys without the other one. They're super codependent. Or brodependent, you might say.Archie's Timeline