White Teeth: The story of the postcolonial expatriate

Abhi Chaudhuri '06, Eng 393B, DePauw University

Zadie Smith's novel tells the story of two families that attempt to overcome cultural issues in order to live happily. During the course of the novel, Samad and Hortense reatedly try to hang on to beliefs and practices from their motherland. Both of them also seem overly concerned with the supposed corruption of their descendants in England. Hortense, who is disturbed by the "un-blackness" of her grandchild Irie, wishes that Clara had married a black man; she also tries to make Irie adopt her religious beliefs, which become symbolic of her history and culture. Samad, on the other hand, is concerned that his sons are not Muslim enough. In his demented paranoia, he kidnaps his son Magid and sends him to Bangladesh so that he can become a proper Muslim.

Both Samad and Clara's mother are portrayed as trying to hold on to a culture and history that they no longer inhabit. Samad struggles to find his identity because his frequent change in nationality (Indian to Pakistani to Bangladeshi) forces him to take up Islam as his identity, and he tries to make his sons do the same. However, he has a very distorted understanding of Islam in Bangladesh since he hasn't been there for a long time. He retains a religious image of a pious Bangladesh even though the actual situation there is different. This difference appears in Alsana, whom Samad had gotten "fresh" from Bangladesh, who turns out to be a lot more radical and more independent than Samad would like her to be. Siilarly, Magid's Islamic education seems to have made him walk in a diametrically opposite direction. Magid's education in Bangladesh in relation to Millat's in England is especially important here: estranged from the mainstream religion, Millat has an skewed grasp of religious activism and joins the fundamentalist group KEVIN, whereas Magid studies the law and works with a scientist as Bangladesh, in its strides towards development, encourages its bright youth to take up an education in engineering and law instead of religious fundamentalism.

The hypocrisy of all the characters who try to hold on to their history is portrayed satirically. Samad, the pious Muslim, has an affair with his sons' Christian teacher for part of the story, and he drinks heavily in the other half. Millat joins KEVIN because it gives him a sense of power that is physical rather than spiritual. Hortense bases her life upon a belief that has been proven wrong twice in her lifetime. Therefore, there is a large gap between the people who are aware of the changes in their native culture and those aren't.

The story of struggle of postcolonial expatriates as expressed in White Teeth can be concisely summed up in the following: "It seems to me . . . that you have tried to love a man as if he were an island and you were shipwrecked and you could mark the land with an X" (Smith, 396). Thus, the people who have actually never experienced their cultures in the native country are in love with an image of the culture that they imagine for it, and are actually ignorant of the real state of it. Being in England and not having the opportunity to return is symbolized by the shipwrecking, and the fact that the estrangement has forced them to latch on to an image they refuse to let go off is symbolized by the marking of the X.


Smith, Zadie. White Teeth, 396. Vintage Publishers, 2001.

United Kingdom Zadie Smith

Last Modified 9 December 2003