by Zadie Smith
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
With a title like White Teeth, are you surprised that the chompers are for more than just chewing? We already know that teeth do important work as a universal symbol of humanity (head on over to our "What's Up With The Title?" section for more on this). But, never fear, there's more to teeth as a symbol than that. Much more.
At the same time as teeth symbolize humanity, specific kinds of teeth symbolize certain people, or kinds of people. Everyone has teeth, Zadie Smith seems to say, but some people have a mouth full of molars. Or something like that.
And, fun fact: six of the twenty chapters in White Teeth have something to do with teeth. These include: teething, root canals, molars, more root canals, canines, and more root canals (or you could think about this as Chapters 2, 5, 7, 10, 12, and 13). For the record, we here at Shmoop would like to note that root canals themselves are not any fun.
Chapter 7 is the molars chapter. Well, it's called "Molars" anyway.
In this chapter, we find Irie, Magid, and Millat preparing to visit an older man, Mr. Hamilton, in honor of their school's Harvest Festival. They're bringing him food. As the children travel one way to do this, Samad travels the opposite way on the same bus line to meet Poppy Burt-Jones, with whom he is having an affair.
Mr. Hamilton cannot eat anything the children have brought because he neglected his teeth for many years, and he warns the children against doing the same. That's all good and well, but Mr. Hamilton is a strange figure. He tells upsetting stories:
But like all things, the business has two sides. Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery, it was. And they died because of it, you see? Poor bastards. Or rather I survived, to look at it in another way, do you see? (7.113)
Just like Mr. Hamilton can't chew up and digest any of the food the kids have brought, they have a hard time digesting his story. He also says that that fibs will rot their teeth (they're not fibbing), which is a total lie.
Then, when Samad is sitting with Poppy in the park, he sees his sons in the distance. Specifically, he sees "[…] their white teeth biting into two waxy apples, waving, smiling" (7.200). The boys have molars, and can chew up the apples. This is the image (their teeth) that Samad will see in his head over and over again as he thinks to himself that he has to save his sons from turning into the kind of man he has turned into.
At that moment, Poppy reveals that she's bought him a toothbrush. The toothbrush might save Samad's actual teeth, but his sons are already digesting his sins.
Chapter 12 is called, "Canines: The Ripping Teeth," and it's the chapter where we meet the Chalfens. You know that phrase "to sink your teeth into something"? We think whoever said that first was definitely talking about canines.
In White Teeth, canines are a symbol for the way the Chalfens sink their teeth into Irie, Magid, and Millat:
Alsana blew air out of her nose. "I'll call them Chaffinches—little scavenging English birds pecking at all the best seeds! Those birds do the same to my bay leaves as these people do to my boy. But they are worse; they are like birds with teeth, with sharp little canines— they don't just steal, they rip apart! What do you know about them?" (12.252)
Alsana might be exaggerating things a bit when she says that the Chalfens are like birds who rip things apart. But it is true that they seem to have a strong hold on the Jones and Iqbal children… and not just in a surface kind of way.
Wisdom teeth represent the unknown. And, as it turns out, what you don't know can hurt you. According to Mr. Hamilton:
They are the only part of the body that a man must grow into. He must be a big enough man for these teeth, do you see? Because if not—oh dear me, they grow crooked or any which way, or refuse to grow at all. They stay locked up there with the bone—an impaction, I believe, is the term—and terrible, terrible infection ensues. Have them out early, that's what I tell my granddaughter Jocelyn in regard to her sons. You simply must. (7.125)
They are unpredictable; they come through the gums long after all of a person's other teeth, and if they don't come through, things get ugly.
In this way, wisdom teeth are a symbol for secrets—those things that so often lie under the surface wreaking havoc in White Teeth. And secrets come out when the time is right, whether by chance or by force:
These are old secrets. They will come out like wisdom teeth when the time is right. (11.384)
Clara loses—a.k.a. knocks out—her front teeth as a young girl in the Vespa accident with Ryan Topps. Then Clara's life changes pretty drastically.
She gives up her faith, and parts ways with her mother. She finds herself flung away from God into the arms of Archie Jones. With the loss of her teeth, Clara loses certain aspects of her identity and picks up some new ones.
When Irie finds out, as a teenager, that her mother lost her teeth when she was a teenager, she feels betrayed, lied to:
The front set of some false teeth, with no mouth attached to it, was bearing down upon her right foot […] But the question was unnecessary; even as the words formed in her mouth, Irie had already put two and two together. The midnight voice. The perfect daytime straightness and whiteness. (14.72-74)
After this revelation, Irie goes on a fact-finding mission at her grandmother's house. The false (this word alone deserves a close reading) teeth make Irie feel as though her mother is inauthentic. Take-away message: teeth are important symbols of identity.
Roots are what keep your teeth in your mouth, no surprise there. But roots also bubble up in White Teeth in all sorts of other ways and in all sorts of other places.
In this novel, characters are constantly in the process of uncovering and untangling the roots of things that lie under the surface. See, if you think about a plant, the plant wouldn't exist without its roots. Something beneath the surface has made the plant what it is.
People are like this too:
But Archie did not pluck Clara Bowden from a vacuum. And it's about time people told the truth about beautiful women. They do not shimmer down staircases. They do not descend, as was once supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings. Clara was from somewhere. She had roots. (2.1)
People roots are more complicated than plant roots—it takes the whole novel to really see a significant portion of Clara's roots.
This next quote is long, but it's important to understanding what roots symbolize. We didn't accidentally forget to stop typing here, so stay with us, Shmoopers:
To Samad, as to the people of Thailand, tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good, these were untainted principles. That didn't mean he could live by them, abide by them, or grow in the manner they demanded, but roots were roots and roots were good. You would get nowhere telling him that weeds too have tubers, or that the first sign of loose teeth is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums. Roots were what saved, the ropes one throws out to rescue drowning men, to Save Their Souls. And the further Samad himself floated out to sea, pulled down to the depths by a siren named Poppy Burt-Jones, the more determined he became to create for his boys roots on shore, deep roots that no storm or gale could displace. Easier said than done. (8.122)
Samad forgets that everything has roots, even bad things. They aren't good or bad, they just are.
But Samad invests everything he can in trying to lay down a foundation for his children that will set them on the right path to the right traditions and the right culture. By the end of the novel, it's clear that people don't have control over their pasts, let alone anyone else's.
First teeth. Then roots. Put the two together and what do you get? Root canals. Eek.
Several characters in White Teeth have chapters named after their root canals: "The Root Canals of Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal"; "The Root Canals of Mangal Pande"; and "The Root Canals of Hortense Bowden." In dentistry, a root canal is a process involving going into the root of the tooth and removing the nerve.
In each of the root canal chapters, the narrative goes way far back into the past, digging into the circumstances that led these characters to become the people they are. The process of searching for the truth here is framed as a process of excavation—ever thought twice about the phrase uncover the truth?
What we learn by way of these root canal chapters is that saving the root doesn't always save the tooth. Or, more directly, that getting to the bottom of things doesn't necessarily fix anything… but it might all be worth it anyway.
A root canal might not save a tooth, but you can't remove a tooth without the roots.