White Teeth: Part Celebration, Part Cautionary Tale

1529 words - 6 pages

In White Teeth, Zadie Smith warns against the dangers of purism and letting cultural background completely shape one’s identity while simultaneously paying tribute to the rich heritage and beliefs of her characters. It is a cautionary tale for immigrants but is never dismissive of their past. Smith is merely advising against tunnel vision and stressing the need to adapt to one’s environment. She shows the beauty that can stem from adaptation while warning that an inability to do so will lead to one’s downfall. London plays an especially important role as the battleground where the past and the present clash; a melting pot with a large immigrant population and inevitable moral struggle.
From the beginning of the novel Smith emphasizes the significance of history with the line “ What’s past is prologue” (The Tempest, Act II, Scene I). Despite her reservations about letting history control one’s actions, Smith consistently stresses its hand in the future. Everything down to her characterization and writing style honors what has already occurred. By providing rich accounts of significant events in her characters’ lives she makes a statement about how important the past is. Though her characters are generally not speaking in their native language, this never works to hide their roots from the reader. She honors the heritage of all her characters with distinct voices and dialects. This even works on a thematic level as it shows the characters are in the assimilation process. In addition to this when her characters are heated and need to express themselves to the fullest they break into their native tongue. When Samad realizes his only friendship, which has lasted 50 years, is rooted in a lie he “stumbles into the Bengali vernacular, so colorfully populated by liars, sister-fuckers, sons and daughters of pigs, people who give their own mothers oral pleasure” (Smith 533). This is a powerful reminder of who this man is at the core and provides the reader with a taste of his culture. In reference to Magid and Millat Smith states, “the brothers will race towards the future only to find they more and more eloquently express their past, that place where they have just been. Because this is the other thing about immigrants (fugees, émigrés, travelers); they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow” (Smith 466). This is not necessarily regarded as a bad thing. Though the brothers stray from the traditional Muslim way of life, they both honor their heritage in some way. Magid is constantly imparting wisdom on those around him and stressing what he believes is important. He operates much in the same way as his father, constantly preaching and sharing the story of his great-grandfather Mangal Pande. Millat, in his rebellion, mirrors what Samad values and prides himself on the most; his ancestor’s ability to stand up for himself. Smith is showing the amazing things that can stem from heritage and legacy as wisdom and...

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