Teeth as Symbol

Heather Wildrick, Eng 393B, DePauw University

The title White Teeth alerts the reader that that teeth might play an important role in the text, and they do. The first point in the book at which the image of teeth appears is with Clara. When Archie sees her for the first time as she descends from the staircase, "she was the most beautiful thing he has ever seen, she was also the most comforting woman he had ever met . . . her wide grin revealed possibly her one imperfection. A complete lack of top teeth in the top of her mouth" (Smith 22). In chapter two, entitled "Teething Trouble," the reader discovers the story behind Clara's missing teeth, and with this story, Clara's character development ensues. Smith states in the opening paragraph of the chapter: "Clara was from somewhere, she had roots . . . because before she was beautiful she was ugly." We then learn that until a specific point in her life "Clara Bowden . . . was gangly bucktoothed" (Smith 24). By use of the imagery of teeth, Smith emphasizes the importance of roots and the past. By using the story about Clara's teeth to demonstrate that her story does not start when she meets Archie, Smith allows us to learn of Clara's past -- a past which from a postcolonial and feminist standpoint, allows a member of the marginalized "Black Britain" to have a voice.

When Clara loses her teeth, Smith shows that Clara has had a part of her roots taken from her. The specific point in which she loses is when she was riding with Ryan Topps: "when Clara fell, knocking the teeth out of the top her mouth . . . Ryan stood up without a scratch" (Smith 37). Ryan Topps, a white male, does not lose his "teeth" because he has strong roots deeply embedded within English patriarchal society. It is interesting move on Smith's part to make Ryan be the person who causes Clara to lose her roots because it shows how the colonizing world attempts to eradicate and marginalize the "other." He has taken something hard and concrete within Clara, which is irreplaceable. Perhaps Clara loses her roots in her faith as a Jehovah's Witness, in part because of Ryan. He has become active in her family's faith and uses it to oppress Clara.

Another aspect of teeth involves how they are constructed: They have roots, and one has only one set of permanent. We should also note the connection of teeth to identity. In chapter 7, "Molars," Mr. J. P. Hamilton explains to Irie, Magid, and Millat about the implications of not taking care of teeth: " 'And when your teeth rot . . . aaah there's no return. They won't look at you like they used to" (Smith 145). Hamilton's remark implies that by losing teeth, a people lose a part of their identity. Another interesting aspect of teeth is the ways in which they are used to identify people in crime scenes. For example, other than DNA, teeth are the next important source of identifying who one is, no two set of teeth are alike.

Although teeth seem such a minor entity, Smith demonstrates how important teeth are to one's identity, especially to a marginalized person such as Clara. The story of Clara's losing her front teeth plays a role in terms of understanding who Clara is, her life prior to her meeting Archie, and the way in which white Britain oppresses people of color.

United Kingdom Zadie Smith

Last Modified 9 December 2003