On Characterization

The strength of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth lies largely in her use of characterization. Zadie Smith creates characters that seem real and believable—they have distinct manners of appearance, dress, and speech. They also have unique histories and families which situate them as individuals in a specific time and place. But it is Zadie Smith’s exploration of each character’s personal philosophy, their way of understanding the world and their place within it, which makes them three dimensional. This aspect of their characterization, their personal philosophies, their motivations, rationalizations, concerns, values and psychological processes, gives form and weight to each character. They become three dimensional people, rather than simply two dimensional representations on paper.

Alfred Archibald Jones’ tendency to flip a coin to determine his fate—heads go, tails stay—for instance, helps the reader understand his minds’ inner workings. Archie makes sense of the randomness and unpredictability of the world by relying on chance. His world is one of 50:50 ratios.

Alsana, too, believes that the fundamental difference between people lies, not in their color, gender, or faith (175), but in their understanding of chance. The reader understands her minds’ inner working too, as he or she learns Alsana has a litmus test for dividing people into two types.

Samad Iqbal is made real as the reader sees his mental and physical struggles. Although he has strong religious beliefs and is committed to the Qur’an, he violates these beliefs through his affair with Poppy Burt-Jones. As Samad begins to internally repeat the mottos (1) To the pure all things are pure and (2) Can’t say fairer than that, he becomes more interesting by virtue of becoming more complex; Samad is not static, he is a changing man with conflicting desires.

Irie’s worries about her hair, Millat’s interest in subculture, Joyce’s tendency to think in horticultural metaphors, all of these viewpoints are presented by Zadie Smith with incredible complexity. The reader sees into their minds, sees them through the minds of others, and sees them through the lens of history. The book itself is carefully intertwined, actions and objects and character traits all reflect off one another, everything repeats.

I look forward to reading more about these characters, because I can predict only that they will continue to grow, to change. It is as if Zadie Smith is claiming: the only certain thing, is uncertainy itself. And therein lays the strength of the book. Why would anyone read a book that they can predict? The unpredictability, the peculiarity, the strangeness of this novel invites curiosity. Despite of or because of their peculiarity, the families are relatable and easy to identify with, as there is a clear parallel between their thoughts and actions.

Elizabeth Frankenfield

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~ by lizfrank on April 9, 2008.

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