Cultural Infidelity in White Teeth

Among other things, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is a novel of cultural transgression and transcendence. By having her characters either subvert or reinforce their traditional cultural roles, Smith makes a global comment about the nature of culture hybridity. I think part of the point may be that, despite genetics or the factors that we are not responsible for, who we are is ultimately in our own hands. Examples of characters who choose to dramatically depart from their traditional cultural roles abound in Smith’s novel, but there are also characters like Samad who try to recapture what he sees as his defining cultural characteristics. While the Joneses may resonate more with American readers, I think the majority of the novel’s conflicts focus on the Iqbals.

Samad’s problem of marital infidelity and strained marital relations in general stems from his confused relationship with both Islam and his Bengali roots. He immortalizes Pande as a cultural apotheosis, but continues to choose small conflicts as his points of passion in everyday life. He worships with a novelty Qur’an and complains of pagan festivals at parent-governor conferences, but violates Islamic law with non-Muslims [euphemism]. Ultimately, Smith uses Samad to suggest the effects of transplantation on the cultural hybrid; he doesn’t really fit anywhere, and the occupation in this no-man’s land leads to a breakdown in his motivations and pursuits as a character. If anyone is drifting in White Teeth, it is surely Samad who, despite his passions, has no real direction, even less so than the average character in the work.

Millat is a great example of environmental factors defining his person more than any genetic characteristics. Millat consistently flouts cultural expectations while still retaining a morphed/warped sense of Bengali culture—he and his crew have a strange relationship not only with religion, but also with chav/English culture. There occupy an interesting position of hybridity; Millat loves Bruce Springsteen, A Clockwork Orange, and Nike, but he lives in a strictly Muslim household. This is a sort of cultural infidelity that is also manifested through his frequent sexual escapades. I think Smith asks the question of whether Millat is Bengali or English, but also implies that he is the first generation of new sort of culture arising as a by-product of hybridity in the context of globalization.

-Eric D.

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~ by HV on April 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “Cultural Infidelity in White Teeth”

  1. This is a really interesting commentary that I absolutely noticed while reading White Teeth as well. It is easy to see, through marriages and relationships, the culture that Smith is trying to create. Samad’s betrothal to a woman NOT YET BORN shows (maybe a little extremely) how Westerners tend to view arranged marriages. Likewise, though, Archie’s quick marriage to Clara emphasizes the stereotypes many have toward today’s marriage relationships (higher divorce rate, marrying outside of age range). When closely examined, however, none of these characters truly fit in their cultural stereotype, for a reason. Samad has trouble with religion, and Archie doesn’t hold control over his house as most stereotyped white males do. The women likewise have trouble identifying with culture; Alsana struggles with her husband and being a “submissive” wife and Hortense is estranged from her mother and at times her daughter as well because of cultural disagreements.
    Stephanie Mills

  2. You are right. Our environment, both personal (or family) and society, determine who we will become. Genetics decides what we look like but the rest is a result of experience.

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