by Zadie Smith
Clara Bowden Jones
Damsel in Distress
Over the course of White Teeth, Clara goes from awkward, toothless Jehovah's Witness to Archie's very own moviestar. Wanna know how she gets from A to B? Tune in to our next paragraphs.
Clara immigrated to England from Jamaica with her mother back in 1972. Clara's mother, Hortense, raises her on tough love, God, and the apocalypse. Hortense is a Jehovah's Witness, and when Clara meets a boy named Ryan Topps, she tells herself she's got to save his soul. But, the narrator asks, "Was there not the half-conceived hope that Ryan Topps might save her?" (2.16).
Clara is looking for a different life than the one her strict, pious, poor mother can provide. She wants out, and she hopes Ryan will be her Golden Ticket to somewhere else. So when things don't work with Ryan, Clara goes looking for something (or someone) else to save her.
The narrator tells us:
Yet a residue, left over from the evaporation of Clara's faith remained. She still wished for a savior. She still wished for a man to whisk her away, to choose her above others so that she might Walk in the white with Him: for [she] was worthy. Revelation 3:4. (2.11)
This is how Clara finds herself married to the forty-seven year old Archie Jones at age nineteen. Archie's age, and the fact that he's not the most exciting man ever, are good examples of just how desperate Clara is for a new life.
We Mean, Damsel in Mild Discomfort
But this "new life" with Archie isn't all she had imagined it would be. Clara doesn't love Archie, and she's not so stoked about the working-class lifestyle he provides. But she knows she made a choice to be with him, so she sticks it out. You could say she settles for Archie.
Then, not unlike her husband's best friend, Samad, Clara puts all of herself into raising her daughter. When she is pregnant with Irie, she tells Alsana her plans for the baby's name:
I think I like Irie. It patois. Means everything OK, cool, peaceful, you know?" (4.92)
We think Clara wants to name her daughter Irie not because it's a good name for the little girl, though, but because that's how Clara wants to live. She's always trying to be the calm in her family's storm. There are some crazy plot twists in this novel, and Clara is a pro at keeping it cool.
Clara seems to understand that she can't control everything. So, she provides White Teeth with some thematic contrast; while most of the other characters in the book are obsessed with their own fates and the fate of the world at large—Hortense is constantly blabbing about the apocalypse—Clara just does Clara. Right on, sister.Clara's Timeline