Personal History: The Ultimate Source of Comfort

Why do all the authors we have read thus far focus on each character’s history?  As discussed yesterday in class, the role of history in a novel seems infinitely complex.  It almost equates to opening a present, only to find another wrapped box, which leads to another, smaller wrapped box, and so on and so forth. But in the case of history, the numbers of boxes appear limitless.  Even though the role of history in novels may seem indefinable, when taken on a character basis, the task becomes manageable.  For example, Zadie Smith in White Teeth incorporates Samad’s history as a means to not only explain his actions but also to show the appeal and comfort Samad’s personal history provides him; thus alluding to the comfort that our own intimate histories provide us.


As many parents fail to understand their children, Samad likewise struggles with knowing Magid and Millet (105).  Rather than merely appealing to the generation gap as most parents do to rationalize this situation, Samad claims his children’s easy life in America is responsible for their behavior.  Instead of seeing the problem as a communication flaw between himself and his children, Samad’s personal relationship with his native land provides him an excuse, which others cannot debate (except for his wife and family from Bengal).  But even then, Samad’s situation as a foreigner from a country of simpler yet tougher struggles for survival provides him a sense of pride in the matter of not relating to his children.  While other parents struggle with their inability to communicate with their kids, Samad does not really try.  Instead, he views himself as the victim of his children’s spoiled lives in America, therefore seeing his inability to relate to his children as indicative of his more “difficult” and “honorable” childhood.


Similarly, when Samad cheats on Alsana with Poppy, rather than focusing on the sin he commits, his interactions with his wife and co-worker Shiva and his focus on his kids provide him outlets, dependent on his different background, that dissipate his guilt.  Prior to ending the affair that on some level resulted from his weakening marriage, he suggests the strong role his wife’s disregard towards their heritage played.  He explicitly tells her, “Look how you dress.  Running shoes and a sari… You do not even know what you are, where you come from,”(166).  Although Samad focuses on his wife’s more American appearance to explain their weakening marriage, he is hypocritically wearing a “blue terry cloth jogging suit topped off with Poppy’s LA Raiders baseball cap,”(166).  Even though his kids’ haunt him during his affair with Poppy, it is not until his wife points out his own disregard towards their heritage that he finds the strength to end the affair.  His different roots also allow him an excuse to disregard Poppy’s anger at the affair’s termination.  This occurs when Shiva informs him, “It ain’t just you she’s angry with… No, man, history, history.  It’s all brown man leaving English woman,”(169),  In addition to this, Samad expresses his low concern about Poppy’s feelings, as he has “other concerns now,”(169).  These other concerns were none other then his plot to send Magid back to his homeland, a plot that depends upon Samad’s connection to his past.  Therefore, Samad’s enrooted connection to his past distracts him from focusing on the gravity of his affair and the subsequent emotions he has generated within Poppy and Alsana.


Likewise, when Samad’s feelings contradict popular or logical opinion, he uses his past encounter with the war as an excuse for his dissent.   For example, while watching the unification of Germany in the presence of his and the Jones’s family, Samad vocalizes his contempt as he informs the kids, “You younger people forget why certain things were done, you forget their significance.  We were there. Not all of us think fondly upon a united Germany.  They were different times…”(199).  Contrary to his explicit reference to the war as the reason why the kids do not understand Samad’s feelings, the narrator conveys Samad’s usage of the war to disregard his actual feelings.  “Samad looked at the happy people dancing on the wall and felt contempt and something more irritating underneath it all that could have been jealousy,”(199).  Instead of Samad himself acknowledging these feelings, the narrator does.  This different perspective suggests the extent to which Samad neglects his emotions and uses a history that only Archie could contest to bury his feelings.  Furthermore, the extent to which Samad ignores his feelings comes forth in the narrator’s inability to discern them and the phrase “underneath it all” that the narrator incorporates to describe them.

Therefore, although I have not finished the novel, Samad’s connection with history seems to offer him an uncontestable excuse and comfort.  In the instance of his inability to know his children, his heritage offers him pride.  When facing the repercussions of his affair, his heritage distracts him.  When discomforting emotions arise within him, he uses his war experience to repress them.  Even though I have only explained how this theory of a character’s history providing them the ultimate excuse and comfort when facing mistakes or discomforting feelings, I believe that other characters probably have similar relationships to their pasts. 

Nicole Shen


~ by shennt on April 10, 2008.

3 Responses to “Personal History: The Ultimate Source of Comfort”

  1. I just wanted to throw out there that the whole situation with Samad blaming the “easy life in America” on the twins’ behavior is not very far-fetched. I know plenty of Indian parents who feel exactly the same way about their kids, and even my parents have stressed this fact to me and my brother many times. They’re always telling us how easy we have it here and how lucky we are that we don’t have to worry about all of the difficulties that people living in India have to face. They often suggest that they should send us to India, so we can see just how easy life is here and learn the proper values and morals. We are often compared to our cousins in India and told that we should learn something from how well-behaved they are (in terms of culture/tradition). So Samad’s rationale behind sending Magid to Bangladesh is pretty believable and reflects the feelings of South Asian parents fairly realistically. Parents don’t want their kids to lose their culture and become too Americanized. This sentiment regarding the balance between assimilation and retention of ethnic identity is a universal one among immigrants. I’m not sure if anyone would actually put their feelings into action and really send their kids away, though. The fact that Samad actually sends Magid to Bangladesh is part of the humor of the situation.

    ~ B2

  2. I didn’t mean to imply that Samad “blaming the ‘easy life in America’ on the twins’ behavior was far-fetched.” What I meant to suggest through this blog was a reason why Samad seems to be living through the past in the present. For example, in conversation, the Chalfens talk about currently debated issues such as nature vs. nurture, while Samad countless times tells the story of his great-grandfather, Mangal Pande. Likewise, Samad constantly references his wartime experience with Archie or his children’s detachment from their religion. Basically, rather than claiming that Samad’s usage of history as an excuse was “far-fetched,” this blog was focused on examining why Samad yearns to live such a reverted life. My conclusion was ultimately that Samad clings to his personal history because it provides him comfort in his current life, and this behavior causes him a means to quickly and easily suppress feelings of discomfort.

  3. Oh, my intention wasn’t to imply that you were saying Samad’s attitude was far-fetched. I was just sharing that his feelings are based on actual sentiments held by immigrants sometimes. That was one thing that really interested me in this book. The ways of thinking and the feelings that are shown in the characters reflects on what actually happens in real life – even though the book displays all of those somewhat stereotypical traits and characteristics in the extreme. But that made it really entertaining; it was all true, yet not true at the same time.

    ~ B2

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