History Repeats Itself. Twice. But How and with Who?

As Eugenides in Middle Sex examined how history tends to repeat itself, so too does Zadie Smith in White Teeth.  Through the narrator, Smith explicitly states, “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories”(299).  Prior to this statement and following it, Smith provides several examples in which history repeats itself with a slight twist. Besides the repetitions themselves being slightly different than the original incident, between characters of different descent that share a similar experience, within families, and across characters unrelated. An example of each type is given below, respectively.

A more obvious example of history repeating itself is shown through Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret’s second shooting of Archie.  The first shooting occurs after the war ends, when Dr. Sick is captured.  Iqbal then wins unquestionable authority over the doctor and commands Archie to kill Dr. Sick in the woods.  Instead of killing Dr. Sick, Archie reluctantly takes Dr. Sick out to the woods and allows him to plead for his life.  Somehow, during this pleading, Dr. Sick changes his fate, obtains hold of the gun, and shoots Archie in the leg.  “Archie was returning: bleeding and limping badly, made visible, then invisible, illuminated, obscured, as he wound in and out of the headlights”(102).  Similarly, at the convention, Dr. Sick reappears, and Archie again has the opportunity to kill him.  Archie again shows no passionate desire to kill Dr. Sick; for he tells Dr. Sick, “I’ve got nothing against you personal… but my friend, Sam… well, I’m in a bit of a situation”(442).  As before, Archie fails to kill Dr. Sick, but this time in front of a crowd of people.  Likewise, Archie is shot and bleeding at the end of his encounter with Dr. Sick, and Dr. Sick again successfully shoots Archie and escapes death (447).

Less obviously, Smith provides an example of history repeating itself through the lives of Ambrosia and Irie and their experiences with Glenard.  As Ambrosia is miseducated by Glenard, likewise is Irie Jones.  When Ambrosia’s original teacher in Jamaica, Captain Charlie Durham, leaves her, he places her continued studies in the hands of Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard.  After a few weeks, he finds himself incapable of teaching her due to her pregnant state and instead sends her to Mrs. Brenton.  Not only does Glenard not teach Ambrosia, but he also rapes her.  As Glenard violates Ambrosia’s right to a proper education, the school he is later associated with, Glenard Oak, likewise violates Irie’s education.  Granted, Glenard Oak does not rape Irie, but it did impose upon her a limited, skewed view of the world, as shown through the subjective reading of single lines from Shakespeare’s latter sonnets in Mrs. Roody’s class.  Additionally, Mrs. Roody’s advice to the students to “Never read what is old with a modern ear,” places restrictions upon interpretation, and consequently individuality within the classroom(227).  Thus, mimicking the repressiveness exerted by a person in a position of higher authority, as previously seen through Glenard’s treatment of Ambrosia but with a different twist.

The least obvious example, involves history independently repeating itself within two different characters, unknown to each other. This is shown through Hortense and Samad’s similar relationships to religion.  As Hortense devotes herself to being a member of Jehovah’s Witness, Samad Iqbal similarly devotes himself to the Qur’an.  Although, their faiths are different, Samad connects with Hortense’s religious demonstration of her faith.  Originally sent to quite the religious demonstration taking place outside the conference, Samad finds himself “unwilling to silence Hortense”(439).  He explains his behavior due to the fact that “he would do the same, though in a different name.  He knows what it is to seek.  He knows the dryness.  He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land—horrible, persistent—the thirst that lasts your whole life”(439). Hortense and Samad’s different experiences growing up in a foreign land and their similar attachments to religion make me think of convergent evolution.  This form of evolution results in the evolution of similar traits in organisms that are unrelated.1 Convergent evolution generally results from the sharing of similar environmental conditions between the two ancestrally different species.  Hortense and Samad are definitely ancestrally different, and they both share the experience of living in a non-native land.  Despite the fact that their individual relationships with religion are characteristics rather than traits, and characteristics are not passed on genetically, their other similarities make a strong, interesting case for convergent evolution.

For that matter, perhaps Zadie Smith focuses on history repeating itself in a slightly different manner in the lives of her characters to allude to different forms of evolution.  As an argument for convergent evolution was presented in Hortense and Samad’s situation, an argument for parallel evolution could be made concerning Ambrosia and Irie’s situation.  Although I’m not really sure what to make of Archie and Dr. Sick’s history, I’m sure there is something there. I am just as positive that there are several more examples of history repeating itself, perhaps there is even another type.  I would definitely be interested in hearing more examples and/or different interpretations of the ones provided here.

Nicole Shen


1.  < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convergent_evolution&gt;


~ by shennt on April 16, 2008.

One Response to “History Repeats Itself. Twice. But How and with Who?”

  1. I think perhaps you have misinterpreted the flashback that we are given during the finale at the conference as actually having happened at that time. The exchange between Dr. Perret and Archie is the one which we are not allowed to see when it actually occurs in the timeline, but Archie relives it as he takes the bullet. Or perhaps he does not relive it, but Smith deems it time to make the revelation. I think the first instance of Archie being shot and the second are fundamentally different because when Dr. Perret shoots him he has no choice in the matter–in fact, he is shot in the process of trying to make a decision by yet again flipping a coin. In the second shooting, Archie actively makes a decision to save Dr. Perret. Of his own volition, he takes Millat’s bullet. This is a huge moment for his character: at last, he has made a decision for himself, without help or coercion. He has finally expressed a trait, to brave a genetic metaphor: that of courage.


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