On Revenge…

Zadie Smith covers a lot of psychological ground in White Teeth; at times I feel as if her characterization of inner-life becomes too broad in scope. But without questioning the merit of that aspect of the novel, I would like to talk about her portrayal of retribution. By setting up a fictional (though still very relevant) event, Smith illustrates how modern social changes can be interpreted and responded to via a range of group contexts.

Through much of the first half of the novel, Smith sketches out the different problems posed by the socio-cultural domains her characters inhabit. The first-generation traditionalism of Samad Iqbal clashes with the patchwork cultural identities of Magid and Millat. Irie struggles with the truth of her own heritage, social expectations and ideals, and unrequited love. Josh Chalfen challenges his overly nurtured familial identity and paternal loyalty. Smith gives the necessary, unifying complication to these different personal story arcs with Dr. Chalfen’s unveiling of the SuperMouse; by the end of the novel everything runs together beautifully. But leading up to that point, Smith puts the characters into different groups that each give different perspectives to the SuperMouse event.

Josh’s personal struggles lead him to join the ALF-like FATE group, and with that, the reader can see into how one form of retribution against Dr. Chalfen might be morally justified. Millat’s personal vendetta to become “something” presses him to become involved with the radical Islamist KEVIN organization. Like FATE, KEVIN responds to Dr. Chalfen’s mousey genetic breakthrough. The members of KEVIN desire divine retribution; Dr. Chalfen has arrogantly “played G.d.” Irie’s search for her heritage leads the reader into another religious perspective. Her grandmother and Ryan (both Jehovah’s Witnesses) organize a kind of faith-based outcry against Chalfen. This group doesn’t desire divine retribution, like KEVIN, they expect it, scream for its inevitable arrival. A case could also be made for the “traditionalist” response to Chalfen, as represented by Samad and Archie. However, when the event finally occurs, when Chalfen unveils the Supermouse at the end of the novel, group perspective crumbles as each character must face the reality of his or her own more immediate personal problems: Irie becoming pregnancy, Josh being taken hostage, Millat shooting Chalfen.

Why did Smith do this? Why did she lead us on to think (expect) Chalfen should get what he deserves? On one level, she makes a contemporarily relevant statement about genetic research, but on a more literary level, she makes the case that, while external forces (groups, Fate, genes, chance, G.d) in part determine individual action, the individual actor responds to circumstances on a personal, more immediate level. For Smith then, people possess individual agency great enough to overcome a range of socio-cultural pressures or individual habits and thus act in the moment.

-M. Walker

~ by th3flatline on April 15, 2008.

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