Study Guide

White Teeth Chapter 1

By Zadie Smith

Chapter 1

The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones

  • White Teeth starts at the beginning. Well, at the beginning of the year anyway. It's January 1, 1975, when we meet Alfred Archibald Jones (a.k.a Archie). He's dressed in corduroy, hunched over the steering wheel of his car… inhaling exhaust fumes. Uh-oh, we've got a suicide attempt on our hands here.
  • Archie has decided he's a failure, and he's decided to take his mistakes with him into the afterlife, so he's got his army service medals in his left hand and his marriage license in his right.
  • Forget weight loss or exercise, suicide is Archie's New Year's resolution. Yikes.
  • At least Archibald feels perfectly sure that he should die on the same nasty street where he has found himself living alone as a forty-seven-year-old man. He's in a bad place, as you might've guessed.
  • Then Mo Hussein-Ishmael shows up swinging a meat cleaver. He's playing cricket with the pigeons, which is both kind of hilarious and kind of awful. It's also messy.
  • So this huge dude named Varin gets called in to clean up the pigeon parts.
  • And as Mo surveys the street scene, he sees Archie's car.
  • Archie's car is parked in such a way as to block the delivery of cows that morning, and Mo demands that Ashrad, his son, find out what the car is doing there.
  • He calls to Ashrad, who comes out dressed all in different browns (quick, call the fashion police) with his hands covered in blood.
  • Ashrad reports that Archie is gassing himself and wants to be left alone, but Mo is not having any of that nonsense. He pulls the towel out of the gap in the window of Archie's car, forces the window down, and informs Archie that he is in a halal place and that if he wants to die there he'll have to be "thoroughly bled first."
  • To Archie, this is a sign that Life (yep, it's capitalized) wants him. Look, ma, It really wants me. Or something. And he surprises himself by realizing that he wants to live. So he then annoys the heck outta Mo by thanking him profusely.
  • Now we get the backstory on Archie's suicide attempt. Archie attempted suicide with a vacuum hose and the exhaust from his car because his wife, Ophelia, divorced him. After she left, he realized that though he had been living with her for thirty years, he never loved her. Ouch.
  • He remembers how they began well when they met in the spring of 1946 (just after World War II) in a coffee house in Florence, Italy. Ophelia Diagilo was warm and beautiful when Archie met her, but she didn't know that Archie distrusted women. He was only able to love them if they "wore halos."
  • And Archie didn't know that Ophelia's family history was plagued by two hysterical aunts, an uncle who talked to aubergines (eggplants in British English), and a cousin who wore his clothes backwards… and not just because he got dressed in the dark.
  • In other words, Archie and Ophelia were neither a stable couple nor a super-in-love one. They returned to England together, but it didn't take long for Archie to drive Ophelia mad, or for Ophelia's "halo" to move to the attic with the other broken appliances waiting to be fixed. Like their old Hoover vacuum.