Study Guide

White Teeth Chapter 5

By Zadie Smith

Chapter 5

The Root Canals of Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal

  • This chapter continues with the idea of looking at things close up, and going to the root of matters. The narrator asks questions about how far back a person really wants to go.
  • Then the story takes us back in Archie and Samad's lives to their first meeting. Bam. We're in a military regiment in Russia. It is 1945.
  • Archie and Samad's friendship really begins when Samad gets all feisty with Archie about the fact that he has been staring at Samad.
  • Turns out, Samad and Archie are in a specialist division. They travel by tank and serve in many different countries, collecting damaged equipment, building bridges, and making pathways for battle. Coolio.
  • As the regiment is en route to Sofia, Samad announces out loud that he should not be there. Even though everyone ignores him (as usual), he continues on to say (as usual) that he is educated and trained. He should be doing something more important.
  • Samad blames his dead hand for this injustice, and he blames his dead hand on the Indian army.
  • He came to Europe to fight for the English army as a way to Indianize the army and to show the English that Bengali Muslims are strong fighters (as strong as Sikhs) and should be made officers. Most of the other men think that this is totally ridiculous.
  • Samad asks Archie, rhetorically, if Archie knows how Samad's hand was injured. He angrily tells Archie while he was standing in the trenches with a Sikh, the man's gun went off and the bullet hit Samad in the wrist. He refused to have it amputated because he believes that his whole body came from Allah, and his whole body will return to Allah. Samad is in a talking mood, we guess. Not much else to do around the ol' tank.
  • Importantly, the dead hand is the reason Samad ended up in the bridge-laying regiment. Actually, it's the reason all of these men are in this regimen; they're unfit for the other divisions of the army. The narrator calls them the rejects of war. Wamp wamp.
  • Archie is forced to listen to this story, about Samad's fall from the heights of the Bengal military to the depths of the bridge-building regiment, every day for two weeks.
  • Things change on May 6, 1945. Something in the tank explodes in a tiny Bulgarian village. While the men wait for help, Archie and Samad go into the village to wander around.
  • But when they bet back to the tank, the rest of the men are dead. Archie and Samad are the last men standing, as it were.
  • So they try to cope as best they can, but they don't know something crucial. At the very same moment, Colonel-General Jodl sat in a schoolhouse in Reims and signed an end to World War II. Commence the section of the novel where Archie and Samad wander around thinking they're still soldiers fighting a war, but there's no war left to fight.
  • They start spending a lot of time in the Bulgarian village, and act more and more like civilians. They eat together in restaurants and sit outside smoking cigars.
  • The narrator says that their friendship is the kind of friendship that only happens on vacation when people are forced to be close together but assume they will not be in the future. Nice one, Smith. You've got pizazz.
  • Archie reveals to Samad that he doesn't have a girl at home, but that he has a few here and there, if you know what he means. Poor Archie. He's not the best-looking chap around.
  • Samad tells Archie that a bride has already been picked out for him, but that she has not been born yet. Archie thinks it's crazy for a man to marry a woman he doesn't know. We think it's crazy for him to agree to marry someone who hasn't been born yet.
  • They basically become blood brothers—but, you know, without the blood—when Samad tells Archie the story of his great-grandfather who shot the first bullet in the Indian Mutiny.
  • Samad gets worked up (shocking) and asks Archie to do him a favor if they ever make it back home; he asks Archie not to judge people from the East, or India.
  • They have a conversation about consequence and destiny, and then Samad claims that he has eaten something that is making him sick… but it's probably all that unnecessary morphine he's been putting into his body. As Samad is climbing into bed, he tells Archie that he considers him a friend and that in the year 1975 Archie will have dinner with Samad and his wife. Weirdo.
  • In the morning, Samad and Archie wake up to shouting in the streets and finally realize the war is over.
  • They talk with a Russian soldier who tells them that there is a senior officer living in a house nearby; it turns out to be Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret. He is a young French doctor who, according to the Russian soldier, has been working for the Nazis on sterilization and euthanasia.
  • The soldier assumes Archie is an officer because he is wearing his dead officer's uniform. Fair. Archie is about to correct this misunderstanding, but Samad stops him and agrees to lead the expedition up the hill.
  • That night, Archie and Samad go on a mission up the hill with the Russians. Samad is high on morphine again, and Archie is in awe of his boldness.
  • Much of Samad's enthusiasm toward this mission comes from his desire to have a heroic story he can tell his grandchildren.
  • No one is in good shape. The Russian soldiers are very drunk, and Samad runs ahead of them. Archie soon follows.
  • Archie finds Samad sitting down and acting very strangely due to the morphine. He snaps at Archie for calling him Sam; he waves his gun around and talks about how it wouldn't really matter if he died. Sigh.
  • Samad starts questioning whether he and Archie are deserters and impostors.
  • When they find "Dr. Sick" in his house, he certainly lives up to his name. He has bloody tears rolling down his face.
  • He asks Samad if he is going to kill him. Samad tells him that it is for the proper authorities to decide and walks him out of the house with a gun in the back of his head.
  • That night, the men play poker and leave Dr. Sick handcuffed to one of their jeeps. Samad turns out to be a ringer at poker and ends up winning jeeps, guns, medals, land, and promises of horses, chickens, and ducks. Wowza.
  • Samad ends up trading all of these things back to the Russian soldiers in exchange for Dr. Sick. Samad explains to Archie that he wanted Dr. Sick because they need blood on their hands before they go home. Otherwise they can't claim to be real war heroes and whatnot.
  • Archie demands that they let the doctor go, but Samad gets upset and explains to Archie that their prisoner is a scientist who believes he can control who is born and with which qualities. Even though this conversation takes place in 1945, Shmoopsters, people still argue about abortion and the modern DNA-y version of eugenics.
  • Archie and Samad fight s'more until Samad tells Archie that he wants to know what kind of man Archie is, and challenges Archie to kill the doctor.
  • Samad goads Archie until he releases Dr. Sick from his handcuffs and walks him away from the road with a gun to his head.
  • Five minutes later, Samad hears a shot and sees Archie returning, bloody and limping. At this point, we're practically yelling: the war is over. What are you DOING? Yelling at books sometimes makes us feel better, you know?