The 21st Century Comedy of 'White Teeth'

Term Paper, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7


The 21st Century Comedy of White Teeth

It is useless to base any system on a human being. (Henri Bergson. Laughter. 1900)

White Teeth is both an ample and intense read as well as a bestselling success after its first publication in 2000. It has found its creative way via television adaptation and a four-hour long theatre play into the school curriculum. In my term paper I will show that White Teeth is a comedy for the 21st century generated through a polyglot plot and transnational locations.

Mostly based on the first half of the novel, it is where I could draw up my hypotheses. Archibald Jones’ and Samad Iqbal’s male friendship is affiliated with society and culture, and therefore useful on reflexion. Their synchronized mid-life crises move towards conflicts exposed in the amusing narrative. Critically user-oriented but limited due to paper-size, I will try to converge to the multilateral scope of new fiction.

While researching secondary literature published in the 2000s about postcolonial and transnational corpora many authors claimed superordinate terminology adhered to Zadie Smith’s début novel White Teeth. Nonetheless, serious analytical debates were missing an essential genre making literature enjoyable more than ever. In this term paper, my aim is to prove that Zadie Smith escaped the compelling hassle of both a début and millennium novel by jocular updating of contemporary English-speaking literature.

1. Polyglot Plot

The promising twenty-something writer, the English-Jamaican Zadie Smith, was supported by her husband and laywer come poet, the Northern Irish Nick Laird, who published her poetry before her literary fame. She graduated in English literature at Cambridge university with her epic début White Teeth that became a sensational best-seller, TV adaptation and theatre play.

Creative writing about deprived war veterans and their respective multicultural families is syncopated by boisterous jokes. I will elucidate the transnational comedy that is about to unfold in a 542-paged volume.

1.1. Flexible omniscient narrator

Taking the preface ‘What’s past is prologue’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the overture of an attempted suicide, the atmosphere is set for a philological challenge on readers’ entertainment. Zadie Smith does not simply tell from a third-person, omniscient point of view “written in accord with the convention that the narrator knows everything that needs to be known about the agents, actions, and events, and has privileged access to the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motives” (Abrams 301 f.). She infiltrates into an intrusive narrator “who not only reports, but also comments on and evaluates the actions and motives of the characters, and sometimes expresses personal views about human life.” Moreover, a transnational dash to the dialogical criticism of Bakhtin is done, in a polyphonic tradition of Dostoyevsky’s tradition, “in which the characters are liberated to speak 'a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses'” (Abrams 86). Furthermore, Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque” marks the generic core that made me decide upon dubbing White Teeth a Second Millennium Comedy.

The carnivalesque “parallels the flouting of authority and temporary inversion of social hierarchies that, in many cultures, are permitted during a season of carnival.” (Abrams 86) The original carnival of Trinidad or the modified one of Notting Hill is replaced by several New Year’s Eves that stand as a transnational celebration of new hopes and goodwill.

Zadie Smith diarized inter-personal encounters by Dickensian narratology. Like the grand master of English novels, it is Smith’s insertion of witty colloquial speech in dialogues but also her “commitment to the spoken language, and to the attempt to render some of its richness and subtlety through the written word” (Norman Page 159). Her omniscient narration magnifies its glass through the urban mist and suburban minds of cross-generational families.

1.2. Forwarded Reversals

The supposed protagonist Archibald Jones is about to gas himself in his car in front of a halal butcher. An atheistic Englishman gets rescued by muslimic South-Asian immigrants because of ordinary nuisance by pigeons. A metropolitan incident out of court starts off as a daft dénouement to reverse structures of a novel conceived at the turn of the millennium. But the plot’s timeline runs between 1974 (Smith’s year of birth) and 1999 with historical flashbacks to 1945 and 1857. Published in 2000, after years of publishing negotiations, Zadie Smith must have written under that millennium hype although she has freed herself from that professional burden. Because where a writer can never be timely on contemporary topics one can still achieve a long-ranged, almost timeless topicality.

Where mixed media and the advent of global internet altered popular culture into a click-and-skip generation, a different story is concocted in a spelled out manuscript that doesn’t blush. White Teeth rather represents an updated state of the art, a dissentient blueprint in the hands of the post-postcolonial discourse espied and mind-mapped by Cultural Studies in the UK and the US.

‘What’s past is prologue’ chimes in with the film-like start-and-end frame. Both fundamental groups are leveraged by a heroic stunt of the inapt anti-hero Archie. The staggering happy ending sees an unexpected escape of the brown experimental mouse.

The disarray of actions is suited to fixed places and shifting people in order to raise awareness of major postcolonial and transnational discourses that convey “complex, multidimensional approaches in which nothing is taken for granted, and in which it is the task of the individual to produce a coherent self-narrative. […] This individualization is paralleled by a growing recognition of the inherent fictiveness of identities.” (Podsiadlik 169 f.)

2. Transnational Locations

In a ‘megalopolis’ like London the world can certainly get out of sight. The same can be said about academic domains that are busily following trends to emerging literatures in an expanding global publishing market.

“Postcolonial London as a contested terrain and site of potential transformation” (McLeod 11) is bodied forth by “post-colonial London writing in relation to the social and material inequalities that have in part resulted from the city’s divisive architecture of power.”

This has germinated “the possibility of making new spaces in London where the subaltern contingencies of everyday life contest and dismantle authority.” North-West London issue White Teeth with real-life boroughs where “diaspora neighbourhoods are capable of creating and perpetuating their own forms of coercion”.

Mappings of London are deflated into North-Western street names and representative places and landmarks. Locations that Zadie Smith is both familiar with and that are symbolical for literary manipulation. For instance, Cricklewood Broadway is a non-fictional and fictional metaphor - global and local as one - in order to set the comedic tone to come. Harlesden is the kerosene settlement to Heathrow Airport and the area where Samad is entangled among his wife, his twin sons, Poppy and Mad Mary.

In fact, White Teeth locates the unnamed people of London Town extended by its suburbs where the new migrants arrive. London is the world’s melting pot where individual routes have traditional roots to be crossed by high streets emanating from the City. Networking infrastructure is featured by bus transport that has superseded underground train claustrophobia:

And the 52 bus goes two ways. From the Willesden kaleidoscope, one can catch it west like the children; […] or you can get it east, as Samad did; […] and watch with dread (if you are fearful like Samad, if all you have learnt from the city is to cross the road at the sight of dark-skinned men) as white fades to yellow fades to brown, and then Harlesden Clock comes into view, standing like Queen Victoria’s statue in Kingston - a tall stone surrounded by black.

(Smith 164)

2.1. Colours of Culture

Zadie Smith canvasses the manifold colours of places and people who are more allogenic and eclectic than just black and white stereotypical profile.

This novel carries on the influx level as it waves from flux to reflux. Chances of encounters challenge imagination over how this human jigsaw portrays a different or even larger London. The subjective picture is necessary like the Victorian era was imaged by the pen-strayed vagrancy of Charles Dickens. History in White Teeth pulls the wires between static landmarks and mobile infrastructure.

It is the accustomed suburban world where people repeatedly meet on well-trodden high streets. The majority of Londoners live around the Orbital, in incorporated border or county towns, like Archie and Samad and their families do. This area is an oppositional draft from the Old City of Royal institutions and Parliament buildings.

However, the migrant working class has established dominion status within the centre of Commonwealth power. A ‘£ 1,50’ shop as Alsana’s friend’s information centre about Samad (Smith 165) and a well up restaurant as Samad’s evening job location (Smith 206) tell scattered stories about new labour laws. This sub-generation of the immigrant tribes are not working for London Transport or in Civil Services but they found employment within their own community. After decades of disintegration, they have established themselves into a class system once hardly on the upgrade.

2.2. Irish Storytelling

In ‘Mitosis’, the novel’s chapter of the turning point, she plays with reader’s expectations giving confusing accounts. The O’Connell’s Pool House is the meeting point exclusively for men. Archie and Samad have their dinner regularly after and before work respectively. From the outside it is the typical Irish pub and pool house. To signify a second semantic meaning to a symbol, inside it is presented without pool tables, without bi-confessional post-colonial nationalism and without pub-related spirituous celebration. (Smith 183)


Excerpt out of 18 pages


The 21st Century Comedy of 'White Teeth'
University of Bremen  (English-Speaking Cultures)
The Transnational Novel
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
495 KB
Transnational, Novel, Zadie Smith, White Teeth, 21st Century, Comedy
Quote paper
Joerg Schroeder (Author), 2012, The 21st Century Comedy of 'White Teeth', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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