by Zadie Smith
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Exposition (Initial Situation)
The Odd Couple(s)
The original strange pair in White Teeth is Archie and Samad. They began with the kind of friendship that can only develop when two people think they'll never see each other again. But this weird and actually-not-temporary-at-all friendship lays the groundwork for the whole novel. English-born Archie and Bengali immigrant Samad marry, have children, and live near each other in North London.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
And People Call the United States a Melting Pot
The Iqbals and the Joneses are complicated enough when the families include only husband and wife. Samad and Alsana have an arranged marriage. Archie and Clara rushed into their marriage because they were both looking to escape something. And the two men are much, much older than their wives.
When Alsana gives birth to her twin boys (Magid and Millat) and Clara to her daughter (Irie), what was a little complex before becomes downright wild. The new generation has a totally different relationship to religion, race, ethnicity, and nation. The parents are pretty much powerless when it comes to controlling their children. As it turns out, they can't stop time. Or turn it back.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
The Straw that Broke the Camel's Back
In White Teeth,the Chalfen family is the straw that broke the camel's back. The Chalfens are English, white, middle-class, liberal intellectuals. In other words, they are everything the Joneses and Iqbals are not.
Irie idolizes them. Millat sees an opportunity to exploit them. Joyce Chalfen needs to be needed, so Millat is her ideal project. Magid sees in them the peak of scientific rationalism, as he becomes part of Marcus Chalfen's groundbreaking genetics research. The Chalfens help Irie and Millat to improve their grades, and Marcus brings Magid back to England. But the Iqbals and the Joneses can't help but feel they are losing their children.
In addition to these individual tensions, there are group tensions at work as well. Marcus's FutureMouse project is at the center of it all.
KEVIN, Millat's fundamentalist Muslim organization, is against meddling with the work of God, and Hortense's (Clara's mother) Jehovah's Witness ladies are against the same element. FATE is a radical animal rights group to which Marcus's son Joshua belongs. They plot to free the FutureMouse as an act of protest.
The Climax comes at the very, very end of White Teeth. Everyone is in the same place. And there is singing, chanting, and even… gunshots.
In the midst of all of the excitement of the FutureMouse press release, our favorite characters enjoy some heady introspective moments. Millat and Joshua question their motives. Samad and Archie are forced to confront the very basis of their friendship on new terms, with new information. Irie realizes that she will never know the identity of her baby's father, and she likes it that way.
Wait, Was That the End?
White Teeth doesn't have the kind of ending where all the loose ends are all tied up with pretty pink bows. In fact, in some ways, the story ends up right back to where started. The novel concludes with Archie and Samad—and their unlikely friendship. Only now, fifty years have passed.
So, White Teeth asks us to think simultaneously about the future and the past of the Iqbals and the Joneses. That ain't no happily ever after, but we think it's an awful lot like life.