by Zadie Smith
White Teeth Theme of Identity
Identity is the theme that just won't quit in White Teeth. The novel explores issues of identity through characters' ethnicities, the way they speak, their socioeconomic class, and more. Seriously, identity is everywhere in this book. And our favorite characters' identities are never simple, clear-cut, one-note, or easy-to-understand. For instance, Magid comes back from Bangladesh an atheist, and Millat joins a very strict Islamic organization in London—which is exactly the opposite of what we'd expect.
Questions About Identity
- How do characters in White Teeth try to establish clear identities? Why are their identities so unclear in the first place? What does their immigrant status have to do with their searching for self-definition?
- How much or how little do race and ethnicity affect identity? For which characters are race and ethnicity more or less important?
- When Irie goes looking for the past at her grandmother's house, how do her family's secrets affect her sense of identity? Does this incident change her in any way?
- What role does social class play in identity formation? What characters does social class affect most? How do the Chalfens play a role in the novel's class commentary?
Chew on This
Samad Iqbal wants his sons to take on the traditional identities he imagines for him, and they disappoint him deeply when they fail to do that. Samad doesn't realize that his sons are English—almost indistinguishable from the other kids in their school or their city.
In a lot of ways, Archie Jones is the least interesting character when it comes to identity. But Archie's lack of an identity crisis (we went there) provides a necessary counterpoint to what the rest of the Joneses and the Iqbals go through.