The Meaning Behind White Teeth

In a novel that addresses but does not resolve the irksome question of nature vs. nurture, Zadie Smith likewise presents us with a paradoxical title: White Teeth.  Teeth, a natural element of human life, meaning that everyone is born with baby teeth that are supposed to be replaced by permanent teeth, are not destined to be white.  In order to attain “white teeth,” one must not only brush them, but one must also regulate their diet, making sure to limit their intake of teeth staining products such as coffee.  As much maintenance as white teeth require, so too do straight teeth.  How many people do you know with “naturally” straight teeth?  I cannot think of one, and this may be presumptuous, but I bet anyone who says their teeth are naturally straight are lying to you.  But how many people can you think of with crooked or unsightly teeth?  Generally speaking, the only people that come to my mind do not reside within the United States or come from an older generation.  Now for a disturbing reality, I cannot think of a single undergraduate at Vanderbilt University that has revolting teeth. So what does this all mean?

I believe that Zadie Smith strategically chose the title White Teeth to capture the underlying way in which fake elements of society impose themselves upon people’s everyday lives, so much so that there exists naturalness within unnaturalness.  Various forms of the phrase “white teeth” are embedded within the novel, and they put forward the overwhelmingly strong presence of “white teeth” within modern society.  Two such examples include “white-toothed airline representatives”(349) and the “tanned man with white teeth”(362).  Both of these examples connote the fakeness within the characters possessing the white teeth; the impersonal smile and exchange of words within customer service oriented business professionals and the obvious altering of appearance in a vain attempt to achieve western beauty.  But despite these superficial exteriors, how much more abnormal would it seem if you were given your complimentary refreshment by a buck toothed individual and walked around Vanderbilt’s campus seeing only pale, white-skinned students?

Similarly, “white teeth” subversively addresses the issue of language.  We definitely speak much differently with a set of full teeth than we do without our two front teeth.  Along the lines of language, Smith seems to associate native language and natural teeth to truth.  For example, Clara works hard at losing her native dialect to speak “proper English.”  Moreover, Clara even uses fake teeth to attain an aesthetically pleasing exterior and to aid her in speaking properly.  Smith shows the extent to which this causes Clara to be untrue to herself and insinuates that it may be at the “root” of her problems.  When Clara speaks with Joyce and she questions where “Irie gets [her brain genes] from, the Jamaican or the English,” rather than answer truthfully, she lies(294).  Clara finds herself left alone in “frustration and anger” “as the front door closes behind [Joyce]”(294).  She internally questions, “Why had she said Captain Charlie Durham?  That was a downright lie.  False as her own white teeth”(294).  She goes on to think that “Captain Charlie Durham wasn’t smart” and ultimately concludes that “Charlie Durham was a no-good djam fool bwoy”(294).  Although Clara at the start of the paragraph says in proper English what she concludes at the end, the same expression in her native tone seems more genuine and more convincing of Durham’s stupidity.  Likewise, at the end of the novel when Iqbal finds out the truth of Archie’s prior failure to kill Dr. Sick, “realiz[ing] that he has been lied to by his only friend in the world for fifty years… Samad tumbles into the Bengali vernacular”(441).  Through Clara and Iqbal, Smith suggests that our most true moments, one’s in which we are most in touch with our emotions, are verbally displayed in our native language.  But because the characters in an attempt for assimilation seldom speak in their native language, the natural has again become unnatural.

Therefore, the title White Teeth addresses a common theme within Smith’s book, the transformation of the natural to unnatural.  Yet, unlike the ambiguous resolution between the nature vs. nurture debate, Smith does connote truth with the natural and fake with the unnatural.

Nicole Shen


~ by shennt on April 21, 2008.

One Response to “The Meaning Behind White Teeth”

  1. We didn’t address this question of the fake at all. Thanks.

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