Study Guide

White Teeth Chapter 12

By Zadie Smith

Chapter 12

Canines: The Ripping Teeth

  • This chapter opens with a slightly wacky excerpt from a book Joyce Chalfen published in 1976 called The New Flower Power.
  • Joyce starts with a comparison between the sexual and cultural revolutions in the decades before 1976, and the horticultural revolution she is writing about.
  • The narrator tells us that when Joyce saw Marcus Chalfen, she just knew she wanted to marry him, and that sitting in an attic writing The New Flower Power was exactly the kind of life she imagined. Quite the dreamer, our Joyce.
  • Marcus also wrote a book that summer. Chimeric Mice (with a huge subtitle) was a biological study, and Joyce didn't read it, but she was, and is, very impressed by him anyway. Like, so much so that it's a little gross.
  • Marcus manipulated mice; he produced mice that did exactly what he told them to—well their genes did exactly what he told them to. He believes in the perfectibility of life.
  • In general, the Chalfens believe in clear answers and that truth is truth.
  • In addition to Josh, Marcus and Joyce have three more boys: Benjamin, Jack, and Oscar.
  • All the Chalfen boys go to Glenard Oak because everything is some kind of political cause for the Chalfens.
  • Therapy is essentially mandatory, and the whole family goes. As a result, the narrator tells us, they have declared themselves to be emotionally stable. Bahaha. That's always a good sign.
  • The Chalfens have no friends; most of their social life revolves around their extended family.
  • One problem with the Chalfens and Chalfenism (oh yes, they have a name for it) is that they are all just so perfect, they're bored.
  • Joyce is the most bored of all; she needs to be needed by her children. For example, she hated when each of them finally stopped breast-feeding. And after Oscar, the youngest, stopped, Joyce started gardening again. At least the plants still need her.
  • When Millat first walks into her house, Joyce thinks he is beautiful (her word). We think she is creeptastic.
  • Marcus starts chatting away at Irie and Millat in such a chill and open way that it leaves Irie speechless. She's not used to parents like the Chalfens. They make clever jokes and speak in an educated way.
  • Millat walks out of the kitchen to go smoke, and Joyce goes on and on about how attractive he is. The narrator tells us that this is Irie's first time being so close to a middle-class family, and she is fascinated. Millat, on the other hand, smells money. He has his priorities.
  • Joyce runs quickly through topics like feminism, IQ, and family, and then ends up asking Irie and Millat what their parents do. She diagnoses them both as lacking role models.
  • Irie is surprised to find that there are fathers who live in the present and don't drag the dead weight of the past around with them everywhere they go. The Chalfens are, like, real parents.
  • The narrator can't keep quiet any longer and jumps in to talk about how this century (the 20th century) has been the century of immigration. It has resulted in children whose first and last names clash.
  • Alsana has nightmares about Millat marrying an Aryan girl named Sarah and two generations later her great-grandchildren would be unrecognizable as Bengali.
  • Clara's mother stopped talking to her when she married Archie partially because she wanted Clara to have children with a black man.
  • Now, Clara is worried that Irie will be washed away in a tide of whiteness. These mothers don't ever stop worrying, do they?
  • Irie decides not to tell her mother about the Chalfens because she pretty much wants to be part of their family; she wants their Englishness.
  • Back to the teenage drama. Josh was pumped to have Millat around all the time at first because it was good to be associated with someone as popular as Millat. But now he's tired of Millat and jealous that Irie still seems to like him.
  • Millat tells Joyce that Samad kicked him out.
  • Irie starts spending more time with Marcus. She is interested in Marcus's study, which is the first thing of its kind she's ever seen. They talk about his work, and how history favors lone geniuses or double-acts (like Watson and Crick—DNA anyone?).
  • Marcus's work focuses on genetically engineering mice, and his big project is FutureMouse. We know, it sounds like a super hero. He's trying to eliminate randomness, which he jokes is the way to world domination. We're not laughing.
  • Irie notices that Marcus's drawers are a mess, and they work out a deal where he will pay Irie 15 pounds per week to fix his filing problems.
  • Clara and Alsana are not pleased about the amount of time their children are spending with the Chalfens, but they don't really like talking to each other.
  • Alsana is convinced that the Chalfens are trying to take her son away from her and Englishify him. Whoa, nelly.
  • Alsana is determined to get Neena to go and meet the family and see what they're like and then report back. Neena is useful in this case because she's not so traditional. Neena agrees.
  • Joyce does not understand gay women. She is not, the narrator tells us, homophobic. She just doesn't get it. Okay, if she says so…
  • When Neena goes to dinner at the Chalfens, she brings her girlfriend Maxine, and the whole thing is a huge mess. If you think you've been in an awkward situation, you will change your mind after reading this scene. This is awkward.
  • At one point, Joyce can't help but blurt out a totally, completely, unbelievably inappropriate question: do you use each other's breasts as pillows?
  • Neena, as much as she hates it, is forced to admit that Alsana is right. The Chalfens are nuts.
  • However, Clara and Alsana can't really do anything to stop their children from spending time with the family.
    Millat is always disappearing. If he's not with the Chalfens, he is with, wait for it… KEVIN.
  • When summer comes, all students take their exams, and Irie comes in just behind Joshua.