Zadie Smith's White Teeth: Identity Construction between Historical Roots and Transcultural Hybridity

Seminar Paper, 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


1. Problems of Identity Construction in Post-Colonial Britain

2. The Concept of History

3. The Concept of Transcultural Hybridity




In 1997, Zadie Smith, a young talented graduate from Cambridge, set out to write a novel about a simple white working-class Londoner who lives a good life throughout the 20th century by accident. Three years later, the author published her fictional debut, White Teeth, which gives its readers a panoramatic view of multicultural British society. The plot evolves around three families of different ethnic origins living in north-western London. In contrast to other initial works of contemporary Black British novelists, Zadie Smith’s first novel is not the usual account of Black youth experience in Britain written from an autobiographical perspective. On more than 500 pages, the Anglo-Jamaican author explores a wide range of themes such as Second World War experiences, first-generation migrant life in the diaspora, recent British youth culture, intergenerational family conflicts, radical religious fanatism and biogenetical engineering. Despite its numerous discourses, diverse characters and multiple time-layers, all of the novel’s addressed issues center around the problem of the individual person forming an authentic identity in a multicultural society and the establishment of a new national identity in postcolonial Britain. Zadie Smith explores the characters’ identity conflicts before the background of their family history. However, while genetic inheritance, cultural origins and prehistory seem to play an important part in the individual’s development, chance and personal choice are deceisive factors which have the potential to overrule any apparently predetermined life path. History and fate are constantly intermingled throughout the narrative, which is at the same time a migrant novel, bildungsroman and family saga.

1. Problems of Identity Construction in Post-Colonial Britain

Zadie Smith draws a portrait of British society on the brink of a new millenium. It is a confused society of mixed races, cultures, languages and customs. Her novel White Teeth captures the very atmosphere that Salman Rushdie already tried to describe in his essay “The New Empire Within”, written at the beginning of the 1980s: “Britain is undergoing a critical phase of its postcolonial period ... It’s a crisis of the whole culture, of the society’s entire sense of itself”[1]. This crisis manifests itself in the individual’s search for a personal identity, which is the major theme of White Teeth. Smith touches the problem of identity construction in a post-colonial Britain by using elements of the migrant novel, the bildungsroman and the historical novel or family history to cast a light on her characters.

As a migrant narrative, the novel gives different perspectives of first and second generation migrant life in Britain. It focusses on the construction of personal identity within a diaspora and the problem of selfdetermination in relation to a white “mainstream” society which confronts people of a different origin with racism and misrecognition and automatically labels them as “different”. Smith does not only presents the migrant’s intracultural conflict of assimilating to the dominant culture and retaining his/her original cultural identity, but also examines the intergenerational dichotomy between the traditionalistic views of parents and the Westernized views of their children.

Through its continuous emphasis on the construction of self, White Teeth can also be defined as a bildungsroman. Chapter headings like “The Miseducation of Irie Jones” clearly allude to this classical genre.The novel is divided into four different parts exploring significant life-altering experiences of the main characters. While the first two parts, Archie 1974, 1945 and Samad 1984, 1857, concentrate on identity conflicts and new beginnings during male mid-life crisis, the last two sections, Irie 1990, 1907 and Magid, Millat and Marcus 1992,1999, contain coming-of-age tales presenting the young generation’s maturation process and the difficulties of puberty.

On a third level, White Teeth can be interpreted as a historical novel about the lives of three families from Willesden Green, although Smith does not follow the usual form of chronological life-writing. Shifting between different levels of time, the author draws parallels between places and generations and recovers interventions in the past which explain the present identity problems of the characters and their involvement with one another. She explores the social concept of family by portraying dysfunctional structures and conflicts within families as well as bonds and friendships between the Jonses, the Iqbals and the Chalfens.

The novel centers around the 50-year friendship between the working-class Londoner Archibald Jones and the Bengali Muslim migrant Samad Iqbal. Despite their friendship the two men are completely opposite to one another and have little in common. Archie is a simple, easy-going character with a clear world view: “He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean. Needle: Haystack”[2]. The only significant flaw in Archie’s character is his lack of will-power and his extreme undecidedness. Relying on fate, Archie simply leaves decisions in life up to the rotations of a flipped coin and lets things happen to him by accident. His lack of ambition makes Archie appear less overreaching and dominant; he is a humble person that does not try to interfere in events or impose his will on other characters’ lives. His uncomplicated life by chance does not hint at a deep identity crisis. Yet, ironically it is Archie who is saved from commiting suicide after his first wife has left him at the beginning of the novel. Being in the middle of his mid-life crisis, he sees his survival as a second chance. After this event, the outer circumstances of Archie’s life change completely. The narrator informs us that “a new Archie is about to emerge”[3]. At the age of 47, he marries Clara Bowden, a 19-year-old Jamaican, and they move into a house in Willesden Green where they will raise their daughter Irie. However, Archie slips into his second marriage and his new role as a family father without a significant identity reconstruction or any remarkable changes in his character. His new beginning does not constitute a second chance that greatly improves upon his former life.

Samad Iqbal is the absolute opposite to his best friend Archie Jones. While the latter lets life pass by inactively without questioning his English identity or his position in society, Samad is a complicated thinker and constant doubter of his own decisions, who struggles with self-chosen principles and tries to actively take control of his life. His character displays the typical post-colonial identity conflicts of a first generation migrant. Members of the dominant society try to restrict minorities to one limited ethnic category which is shaped according to their prejudiced view of “the other”. Immigrants frequently suffer under the problem of never being seen as individuals but instead being prejudged and defined by others who are completely ignorant of their personal history. Yet, prejudice does not only come from conservative right-wing racists. The superficial celebration of multiculturalism, as practiced by white liberals, also promotes the notion of blacks and Asians being “different” from whites. This difference is often defined in terms of primitivism and inferiority. While “white” culture remains undefined and invisible, cultural expressions of other groups are clearly marked as ethnic and placed into narrow categories.

Working as a waiter in an Indian restaurant, Samad is being confronted with misrepresentations of himself on a daily basis. Thus, he feels the necessity of letting his environment know who he is and from what social and intellectual background he comes from. At times, he imagines himself wearing a placard at his restaurant job that proclaims: “I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier …”[4]. His son Millat also faces the problem of being confronted with prejudice and misrecognition:


[1] Rushdie, Salman. “The New Empire Within Britain”. Imaginary Homelands –Essays and Criticism 1981-1991.

London: Granta, 1991. 129.

[2] Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. London: Penguin, 2000. 11.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Ibid., 58.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Zadie Smith's White Teeth: Identity Construction between Historical Roots and Transcultural Hybridity
Free University of Berlin
Writing the City: Representations of London
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This paper focuses on Zadie Smith's treatment of the problem of identity construction for first and second generation migrants in postcolonial Britain. The "bildung" of the characters is influenced by the historical past (origin, national past, etc.) as well as transcultural interaction which leads to the formation of hybrid identities.
Zadie, Smith, White, Teeth, Identity, Construction, Historical, Roots, Transcultural, Hybridity, Writing, City, Representations, London
Quote paper
Natalie Lewis (Author), 2004, Zadie Smith's White Teeth: Identity Construction between Historical Roots and Transcultural Hybridity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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