This is a paper I wrote for an English course at my university, but I am posting it because I find that it is very relevant to issues today and hope that it will provoke thought about the society we live in and how it has changed over history.
The characters in both “White Teeth” and “Great Expectations” are heavily judged for their social status. The rich and successful are greatly respected while the lower class suffers from their societal status. In White Teeth, Zadie Smith presents characters that carry little identity confidence because of their perceived place in society. Smith’s characters live with slim to nil hopes of being successful and advancing in the social construct. Their precarious conditions stem from external forces such as racism, religious intolerance, and low self-esteem. Social class is also prevalent in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Some key players struggle and thrive on scarcity. However, despite their humble beginnings some characters do transcend beyond their static life and rise above their positions. In Great Expectations, the one common obstacle standing between a character and advancements are finances. In White Teeth, it’s not the lack of money that robs the characters from happiness, success, or confidence. There are several hurdles in the way. The characters in White Teeth face greater societal obstacles than the characters in Great Expectations because Smith’s characters are constantly at war with racism, religious intolerance, and identity crisis.
Racism is explicitly apparent on the first chapter of White Teeth. Aside from the jarring racial slurs, the reader is quickly informed characters will be described by their ethnicities. These descriptions, often expressed in derogatory manners by some characters, occur throughout the novel. Even so, the first few pages provide examples.
On page four, Smith introduces a boy named Varin, “a massively overweight Hindu boy” who works at a butcher shop. Varin could have been introduced as a “kind young man”, but his ethnicity is presented second to being physically unhealthy. Soon after, someone supervising Varin begins poking him in the rear with a broom handle, giving orders to wipe off the dead pigeons recently killed by the shop owner. The kitchen worker jeers, “come on, Mr. Fatty-Man …poking as punctuation for each word. Get-your-fat-Ganesh-Hindu-backside-up-there-Elephant-Boy-and-bring-some-of-that-mashed-pigeon-stuff-with-you” (Smith 5). Today, human rights laws prohibit racial slurs in the work environment. Poking someone on her or his bottom with a broom handle would warrant a lawsuit. Verin is clearly robbed of his human rights. This sort of abuse demeans a person, can cause anxiety and depression, and can damper their capability of achieving positive self-worth. According to an article found in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior published in 2012, racism and discrimination “is associated with worse mental health and physical health …and contributes to the relationship between multiple disadvantage statuses and health” (Grollman). Furthermore, the article explains that the chronic exposure to racism can accumulate over time and “ones opportunities and life chances predicts worse health” (Grollman 2). Racism is negatively charged and can smother and snuff a person’s self-worth and self-confidence out, hindering the pursuit of full potential. The over-arching theme of racism throughout the novel is borrowed from Smith’s own experiences growing up in “the so-called ‘Thatcher era’ – the time when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister – was labeled by “a desire for a mono-lingual, mono-cultural Britain”: individualism and nationalism came to a new rise, and national identity was associated with being white.” (Holopainen). Smith
On page seventy-six, the characters Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones find themselves soldiering with two others in a tank during their younger years. Samad begins to gripe and express his misfortune. He believes he should have been an officer instead of an enlisted soldier. However, instead of receiving any sympathy or perhaps annoyance from his peers, Samad is suppressed because of his skin color. A soldier by the name of Roy contorts, “Indian officers? That will be the bloody day!” (Smith 76). Furthermore, Archie Jones denies Samad’s right to be English by disallowing him to kill a Nazi scientist. Archie says to Samad that “if anyone has a score to settle it’d probably be me. It’s Englands future we’ve been fighting for. For England, you know? Democracy and Sunday dinner, and …and …prominent piers, and bangers and mash-and the things that are ours. Not yours” (Smith 100). Smith uses Roy and Archie to reflect white English attitude towards non-white English citizens. If Roy and Archie are the reflection of white English perceptions then the non-white Englishman is inherently socially handicapped (Yancy).
Contrast to Great Expectations, education is not enough in White Teeth. While Pip rises from his social status with education, Samad never see’s the advantages. Pip fulfills his dream of becoming a gentleman. However, despite being educated and having served during the Second Great War, Samad’s occupation is a restaurant waiter. During his days in the war, Samad says “I mean, I am educated. I am trained. I should be soaring with Royal Airborne Force, shelling from on high! I am an officer! Not some mullah, some sepoy, wearing out my chappals in hard sevice (Smith 74). In Great Expectations, being educated leads to success. In White Teeth, if you are educated, but not white then your future still remains uncertain. When the characters are not white English then they are considered sub-citizen and less acceptable.
In White Teeth, all the characters seem to have assimilated their class and their ability to move up socially with their identity as being or not being white. The title “White Teeth” in itself is a metaphor for English white heritage or roots. On page 84 of the novel, Archibald explains that although he is dull he is very proud to be a Jones simply because it meant he was of “good English stock” (Smith). The characters Clara, Samad, and Magid all somehow assimilate themselves into white culture to move up in social rank. Clara is described to have changed her soul as the “Donny Osmond or Michael Jackson or the Bay City Rollers” (Smith 32). All three characters either change their identity or portray a societal perception to belong and be accepted by White class. Clara marries a white man and thus moves up her social rank simply by letting go of her heritage, dressing differently, and learning to lose her Jamaican accent. Whenever she found herself slipping back into her ethnic background she felt ashamed. On Clara’s wedding day the novel ties back into the metaphor of the title by explaining that she was wearing false white teeth. Although she had previously lost her teeth in an accident it can be seen that she was wearing Archie, a white Englishman as a way to assimilate herself into white English culture.
Samad is highly educated and often yearns for society to perceive him beyond an “Indian” identification. On page forty-nine, Samad explains his restless desire to demonstrate to the world that he is more than what he is commonly perceived. He deeply wants the world to see him as a person with depth, three-dimensional, and containing more than one aspect (being Indian). Furthermore, on this page Samad refers to himself as a waiter and not Indian. Smith shows the reader that race ultimately becomes embedded within identity, leaving the characters almost no choice but to identify themselves by their ethnicity regardless of how they feel. Unable to let go of his background as Clara did, Samad never finds his place as an Englishman and is often referred to as an Indian despite the long years spent living in England and fighting for it. He still falls to the fate of the other ethnic characters and assimilates himself into white society by having “the whitest teeth” (Smith 43) and by having an affair with a white woman.
Poppy Burt Jones, the white influence on Samad, tests Samad’s beliefs and practices. Strangely, in some manner, she influences him to dive deeper into English white practices. When Samad first meets Poppy he tells her that he plays bridge to be more attractive and portrays himself to be something other than he is. At the beginning of Chapter Seven, Smith demonstrates that Samad concocts identity by “packing the one shirt he’s never worn to mosque.” He does this to meet up with Poppy (Banerjee).
Additionally, in his early years, Samad can be found detesting the color of his skin and wishing to be less dark. When he was a youth, his mother used to rub white cream all over his body to make him lighter. She believed, as Samad also grew to believe, that he would be successful in life if he could be lighter pigmented (Smith 94). There may also be challenges in this process and, “where the resulting self-definition, for personal or collective reasons, becomes too difficult, a sense of role confusion results” (Erikson, 1968, p. 87) The kids seem unaware of how the adults treat them when it comes to their ethnicity, however as they become adults they are confused with their identities and their place in society. Samad moves his son back home because he believes that it is only in the native land that the children can really learn the culture. This thus further shows that the culture in England is strictly white and that ethnic identity is lost.
Samad furthermore reveals his efforts to assimilate by contradicting his faith and love for the East by trying to affiliate himself with English people and adapting to their customs. He also encourages Poppy’s racist remarks towards his customs and children so that he can remain attractive in her eyes. Magid, Samads son, is first introduced in the story when Samad meets Poppy. She remarks that it is unusual for Magid to be so intelligent and opinionated when Indians kids are usually subdued. Poppy’s racist words and behavior pressures Magid to associate himself as “Mark” while attempting to fully dissociate himself with any Bangladesh practices.
The White characters in the story such as Archie and Poppy feel less pressure to make up for their faults or talents in life because most of their identity is handed to them already. They do not feel the need to talk about their background nor the background of other white folks. They are simply English. They are often making ignorant racial assumptions about their “friends” and feel discomfort when affiliating ethnics and English. Poppy like Archie is said to have very few skills and is comfortable with being a one-show pony. They are handed respected titles like “captain, gentleman and teacher” based on the color of their skin. Archie makes no decisions for himself and leaves everything up to fate, not feeling the pressure other characters in the novel feel to have an identity or purpose in the world.
Unlike Great Expectations it is impossible for the characters of White Teeth to advance socially through carreer or money. The character Samad works with, Shiva, was said to have left the restaurant once in 1979 to start up a security firm, but nobody wanted to hire Paki bouncers so he was forced to comeback and be a waiter. Although Samad is an educated man with many skills he is often overlooked for raises at work and for promotions in the army. Although he personally sees this to be caused by the disability of his right hand, his peers reactions demonstrates that it is greatly to do with him being an Indian and never mention his hand. This was common for immigrants to come over to England with hopes of advancement only to be shot down because of their backgrounds. In Lecture it was seen through the song of “London is the place for me” by Lord Kutchner. In White Teeth this can be portrayed through Clara’s father, Darcus Bowden, who originally came to England to find work and save money to bring his daughter and wife to join and settle in with him. This was never to happen and after 14 years Hortense brought her daughter over by her-self only to find her husband had fallen into lethargy stuck in a chair and watching television, unmoving. (26)
In Great Expectations, some characters act in the interest to advance in society and gain confidence by solidifying some form of social identity. Pip, for example, leaves his sister and brother-in-law to pursuit becoming a Victorian gentleman. Miss Havisham ephemerally attempts teaching Pip English manners and aristocratic customs by inviting him to her home and playing with her protégé, Estella. Many can argue that simple association cannot educate someone. Later through the series, however, Biddy educates Pip. In contrast, characters like Joe Gargary are content with retaining their status and occupational position. Dickens describes as a “was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow,—a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness” (Dickens 2). Being a blacksmith, Joe finds his line of work enjoyable and satisfying. Later in the story, Biddy says “Joe ever did his duty in his way of life, with a strong hand, a quiet tongue, and a gentle heart” (Dickens 35). The differences between Pip and Joe are ambition and humbleness and the only thing stopping either one of them is lack of finances. Comparing the two stories, the challenges obstructing the characters in White Teeth are not matters of money. Characters like Samad and Clara are deprived of fulfilling their dreams because of racial suppression, spawning internal turmoil. The racial stressors then confuse the characters in White Teeth and identity complexes become reality. But race and identity are not the only issues suppressing these characters. The theological normativity in England plays a large role keeping the characters in White Teeth down.
Religious faith in White Teeth holds heavy importance when it comes to how a character will evolve within social class. Faith in this story really seems to hold these characters back when it comes to their agency and dictates huge aspects of their daily lives and aspirations. It is also relative on how they are judged and accepted by society. In regards to white privilege, Christianity and Catholicism are the most accepted religions in Western Countries, in this case, England. Smith demonstrates this when Samad and Archie’s children are first introduced at the beginning of Samad’s section of the book. School holidays celebrated in the school are primarily “white traditions” and when the argument presented to remove Hindu practices to introduce the kids to other cultures is made, it is swiftly turned down (Smith 109). When it comes to the main characters of White Teeth, Samad seems to have put it best:
“The Russians told me. He’s a scientist, like me—but what is his science? Choosing who shall be born and who shall not—breeding people as if the were so many chickens, destroying them if the specifications are not correct. He wants to control, to dictate the future. He wants a race of men, a race of indestructible men that will survive the last days of this earth. But it cannot be done in a laboratory. It must be done, it can only be done, with faith!” (Smith 100).
Faith is arguably the leading factor in which these characters make their decisions and that includes their decisions to move up in class. It is part of their identity and makes it harder for them to go anywhere in a society where their faith is not regularly practiced or understood. Samad expresses on page 120 that he has “been corrupted by England” when it comes to his faith. This can be seen through some of the white practices. So many faiths are allowed in practice, but they are not understood, accepted, or adapted as a part of the dominant culture. When it comes to Clara’s faith and sharing with her anglo-neighborhood she is often met with a face stating that with “the few doors she received the usual pained faces: nice woman shooing her away as politely as possible, making sure they didn’t get too close, scared they might catch religion like an infection” (Smith 29). (Childs) This argument about faith being a part of their culture becomes even more prevalent in the white’s view of the ethnic. For example, Poppy and the school don’t practice tolerance or understand much about the religions they are teaching to the children. They see the events held as more of a “community thing” and make little effort to understand other ways of ethnic culture. Archie also has no faith, other than his need to flip a coin to make decisions. This fifty-fifty faith also mocks religious faith in the way it dictates his life and leads to choices whether it be committing suicide or keeping a red coat rack. Additionally, faith is the first thing that these characters seem to disband of in order to assimilate into white practices. Clara lets go, with heavy guilt, of her faith at the end of the world and Samad starts bargaining his faith when he has an affair with Poppy. It is interesting that these characters feel a need to let go of their faiths in order to assimilate to society.
The only matter standing before any ambitious character in Great Expectations is the lack of money. Aside from social judgment and scarce resources, these characters show no real need to transcend beyond their social status because they are white. Most of the characters in White Teeth, however, face far greater obstacles because they do not fit the cultural, religious, racial description of a white Englishmen. The characters in White Teeth are against large odds because of their social, religious, and racial statuses. Despite earning an income to advance, white Britain seemingly keeps them down. Throughout the book we see the working class and they are not white. Zadie Smith uses White Teeth as an example to magnify on social injustices and teach readers how to improve intercultural communication (Thomas). There is a generation gap in the story to show how people are still affected today by culture. Both mothers in the story feel anxiety for their children’s generation of losing their culture and becoming too transfixed into this white culture. I think this is used to show that their needs to be a balance. It is impossible for an ethnic group to move up in society unless they fully assimilate.
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