Study Guide

White Teeth Summary

By Zadie Smith

White Teeth Summary

Hate to start things off with a downer, folks, but White Teeth opens with Archie Jones trying to commit suicide in his car. It's New Year's Day in 1975, and Archie Jones has decided he's had enough. The good news is that, like most New Year's resolutions, his suicide is a failure.

When his attempt gets interrupted, he takes this interruption as a sign that Life wants to keep him around. And he is stoked about that. Truly. He immediately becomes thoroughly smitten with living again. Like, "The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music" smitten.

Dude ends up wandering around and catching the end of a New Year's party—you know, that early-morning time after a really ragin' all-nighter when a few stay-strongs are still awake from the night before and everyone else is just waking up on the kitchen floor or the couch or whatever. And this is where Archie he meets the lovely Clara Bowden.

Clara is Jamaican and younger—much younger—than Archie. Her mother, Hortense Bowden, is a fanatical Jehovah's Witness. So when the two hit it off, Clara decides to marry Archie. But one big reason she does so is that she desperately wants to escape her mother. Can't blame her, right?

Samad, Archie's unlikely best friend since they were in the same unit together in World War II, ends up marrying someone around the same time. His wifey is Alsana Begum, who is also much younger than Samad. He and Alsana get on okay at first, but their marriage was arranged. So they're not some Disney love story. Alsana and Samad also work really hard at jobs they hate in order to make end's meet. She's a seamstress; he's a waiter. And they are pretty vocal about their hatred for these jobs. Enjoy a good rant? Well, Alsana and Samad can really sound off about their work.

As you might expect, this husband-and-wife duo also end up hating each other quite a bit. Which brings about more ranting. These two are like those friends you had to stop hanging out with until they quit their old jobs and their old relationships because they seriously could not stop complaining and say one positive thing ever. Sorry, Clara and Alsana, we know you work hard, but. Yawn.

Anyway, Clara and Alsana become pregnant around the same time that Archie and Clara do. Everyone likes a happy coincidence, right? Especially Archie, who seems to be alive simply because of one such coincidence.

Archie and Clara have a daughter named Irie, who is smart and capable, but has terrible self-esteem. (You know the type.) Irie just happens to fall in love with one of Samad and Alsana's twin sons, Magid and Millat. Sadly for her, this ain't no Sleepless in Seattle either. You guessed it: Irie's love is absolutely unrequited. Bummer, girlfriend.

When the boys are ten, Samad has an affair with their music teacher. This is like, totally hypocritical because he's generally stringent about living a good and moral life. So Samad develops a serious case of the Guilt Monsters and ends up taking his guilt out on his sons. He becomes obsessed with the idea that they must lead lives that are more true to Islam than he has. Ugh, why are people always trying to fix everyone else after they mess up?

Anyway, Samad pretty much loses it, so he sends Magid to Bangladesh to lead a more traditional Islamic life. And he does this without telling Alsana. Not cool, bro.

From then on, Magid and his bro, Millat, lead very different lives. Millat gets into every kind of trouble you could imagine, and then joins a fundamentalist Muslim group. Magid gets super into science, law, and atheism, which is not at all what he was supposed to be doing over there in Bangladesh. Samad is angry and sad because his kids aren't turning out the way he wants them to. Not. At. All. But that's parenting for you, we guess?

Irie and Millat end up spending a lot of time with the Chalfen family. The Chalfen family is not one bit like the Joneses (who can keep up with them anyway?) or the Iqbales. So, to these kids, they seem awesome. Because, you know, the grass is always greener and all that.

Speaking of green, the reason Irie and Millat end up hanging with the Chalfen family in the first place is they get caught smoking marijuana at school. Bad kids. Oh, and Joshua Chalfen lies about being involved because he wants to be cool. Facepalm.

Irie and Millat are then required to study math and science at the Chalfen household. Marcus Chalfen, Joshua's father, is a geneticist. Joyce Chalfen, Joshua's mother, is part housewife, part botanist. And all this science-y stuff is pretty different than anything Irie's and Millat's parents do, so suffice it to say, the two are pretty amazed by the Chalfens.

These Chalfens have an unbreakable belief in their own rationalism and intelligence, which, let us tell you, grates on everyone. There are upsides to their intellectual pride. But they seem totally unaware of how to behave casually, and so they end up driving Joshua away.

To cut to quick here, we'll say that once the Chalfens are in the picture, things really get nuts. The plot unfolds something like this, give or take a few minor events:

  • Marcus Chalfen strikes up a written correspondence with Magid, and eventually pays for Magid's return to England. 
  • Magid helps Marcus bring his FutureMouse project to the public.
  • Joyce wants to save Millat (from himself). We hear ya, buddy.
  • Marcus feels that Magid is his kindred spirit, which is kind of strange, considering their age difference. But who knows what the heck is going on in Marcus's head. We sure don't.
  • Irie is annoyed by the whole Marcus-and-Magid situation.
  • Joshua is so fed up with his family that he runs away with a militant animal rights group. No, not PETA. More radical than that.

Finally, Marcus's FutureMouse project brings all these people and all these plots together. We feel relieved, don't you? Here's the skinny on how all the worlds collide:

  • Millat and his Islamic fundamentalist group (KEVIN) are at the big reveal of the FutureMouse project to protest the fact that these scientists are all interfering with the will of God and stuff.
  • Clara's mother is also there, to do the same in the name of a different God.
  • Joshua and the members of FATE (his animal rights organization) are there to free the mouse in protest of animal laboratory testing.
  • Archie, Clara, Samad, and Alsana are there as well, believe it or not—albeit reluctantly—to support Magid, and all he has done to help Marcus.

And there are two major secrets uncovered at the unveiling of the FutureMouse. One's got to do with Irie's future, and one with Archie and Samad's past.

We hate unnecessary spoilers—especially ones that don't make a whole lotta sense unless you've read all the details of Smith's super involved plot. So for now, let's just say that White Teeth ends with a bang. Aw, yeah.