Pigeons, Glass Doves, and FutureMouse…

Just from tracking three symbolic animal figures in the novel White Teeth, we can see Zadie Smith develop an understanding of the natural world, the animal kingdom of sorts, all in miniature… a kind of literary menagerie made up (just to name a few members) of:

  • pigeons (I’m referring to the ones Mo attempts to chop up at the beginning of the novel while Archie gasses himself in the parking lot),
  • glass doves (the narrator says in Chapter 15 “But how fragile is Clara’s atheism! Like one of those tiny glass doves Hortense keeps in the living-room cabinet—a breath would knock it over” (326)),
  • and FutureMouse… (whose very life is threatened from the outset not only by the circumstances of environment when it escapes but by its genetic construction to develop cancers at various stages of its existence)

This three-part menagerie I’m citing could be a misleading one, in that I’m positing that live birds and glass birds belong in the same category—that live animals and fake ones can be grouped together for analytical purposes. And yet, are not the glass doves and FutureMouse equally manufactured by human means, though one is inanimate and the other animate? So… I’ll go on with my observations.

The understanding of the natural world that Smith builds in the novel comprises a dynamic that is fueled as much by destruction as it is by production: Life is not about life—life is about life and death. We see this on so many occasions in the novel, for instance, strikingly so with Archie’s character: he proves unable to kill Dr. Perret, yet he nearly succeeds in committing suicide, and at the end of the novel, he grants FutureMouse freedom, which some could construe as a greater chance at life away from the laboratory (although that is not necessarily based on real probability). Archie’s life is driven by moments of both choosing life and choosing death, choosing death and choosing life. And the same holds true for the menagerie above—Mo must choose death for the pigeons (because the pigeon is the shit); the glass dove (albeit representing spiritual/ideological fragility here) is simply knocked over, perhaps shattered by one human breath; and of course, FutureMouse is built to die, (yes, as all animals must die) and yet, FutureMouse’s only purpose in living is to perform the threat of death.

Therefore, in the natural world that White Teeth presents, life and death cannot ever be dealt with separately. The struggle for characters, then, seems to arise out of their desire to control life without regard for death as a mutually implicated process. What I mean is that certain characters in the novel don’t seem to be able to take responsibility for or reconcile themselves to the control of death that comes along with a control of life: Archie cannot bear to kill Dr. Perret. How can people enter into the manipulation of the natural world (for instance, through genetics) when they cannot possibly come to the creative table, as it were, with the same power-wielding indifference that nature does?

What is interesting about Smith’s novel, is that she not only troubles her characters’ positions toward the destruction of life, but she troubles their position toward the production of it. Whereas the workings of reproduction have been fairly straightforward to people for centuries on centuries, they so quickly become incomprehensible with Irie’s pregnancy because even science cannot tell who has produced the baby: Magid or Millat. This novel provides ample opportunity to discuss such complexities and the position of human interest in a natural world that feeds on both life and death.

Erin Spinka

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~ by erinspinka on March 19, 2009.

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