Literature / White Teeth

White Teeth, a 2000 novel by Zadie Smith, chronicles the lives of two World War II veterans and their families in late twentieth-century London. Samad Iqbal is an intelligent and voluble but underemployed waiter, and Archie Jones is a laconic and indecisive everyman, but they are drawn together by their shared experiences in the war, similar family situations, and mutual need for a balancing influence.

When Samad's son Millat, Archie's daughter Irie, and their classmate Joshua Chalfen are accused of using drugs on school property, Joshua's intellectual parents decide to be an uplifting influence on the poor working class children. Joyce Chalfen aspires to become a mother figure to the Troubled, but Cute Millat, while Marcus Chalfen decides that Irie Jones and Millat's more studious twin Magid can be of assistance in a controversial experiment he is conducting.

As the three families become involved with religious fanatics, political intrigues and ethical dilemmas, it becomes apparent that the fate of a single mouse may rest in their hands.


White Teeth provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Alsana Iqbal can whip her husband in hand-to-hand combat (okay, so she sometimes cheats) and is a Mama Bear to boot.
    • Amusingly, she always looks in public like the stereotype of the oppressed South Asian wife (and likes to lecture her relatives as if it were so.) The truth is... more complicated.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Millat is horrible on pretty much every level, but is able to spread his seed to seemingly every girl in the vicinity. This could include Irie if he had any interest in her.
  • Animal Wrongs Group: Joshua Chalfen is part of a radical animals rights group.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: this is cause for serious angst for the semi-devout Muslim Samad Iqbal, since it is against his religion, but he uses a loophole to justify his transgression: the actual instruction from the imam to mind his 'right hand', seemingly forgetting that Samad's right hand is mostly paralysed. So he uses his left.
  • Back for the Finale 'Dr Sick'
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Subverted a number of times.
    • Alsana becomes quite flabby after giving birth to Magid and Millat.
    • Irie literally gets her hair burned off at the beauty salon.
    • As a teenager, Clara is riding on a motorscooter with Ryan when it crashes into a tree. Ryan is thrown safely clear, but Clara's face hits the trunk squarely and all her teeth are knocked out. She is forced to wear false teeth for the rest of her life - and, while as an adult she speaks the Queen's English when her teeth are in, she reverts to the crude Jamaican patois of her youth when the teeth are out.
    • Magid and Millat individually break and disfigure their noses in the exact same place, as if to emphasize just how alike they look...and yes, this does become important at the climax.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: The Chalfens, who live in the suburbs but subscribe to socialist and anarchist magazines.
  • British Teeth: Played with. Teeth are, naturally, a recurring motif.
  • Bully and Wimp Pairing: Subverted (inverted, perhaps?) with both Archie and Samad. Archie appears to embody the archetype of the working-class macho man, but he's actually quite ineffectual for the most part. Samad, meanwhile, comes off as prissy and overly intellectual but bloodies the face of a drunken white man who racially harasses him at O'Connell's pub.
  • But Not Too Black: In-universe- Irie (who is mixed-race) is hugely hung up about her Jamaican hair and typically curvaceous figure, wishing she could have sleek hair and a willowy body like she perceives all the Caucasian girls at school do.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: "Dr. Sick" is a Vichy collaborator during the war.
  • The Dark Side: a character who is a Star Wars fan lampshades this trope when he hears that Irie is working for Dr. Chalfen. (Irie retorts with "Fuck you, Ryan, I'm not Darth Vader.")
  • Draco in Leather Pants: Millat, in-universe.
  • Eagleland Osmosis
    • The female characters sometimes talk like Valley Girls.
    • Millat is a voracious devourer of American pop culture (the films of Martin Scorsese in particular), and feels a great deal of guilt because of this. In fact, at one point he reflects that, in some ways, he's more American than he is either British or Bengali.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: In universe, several characters consider Marcus Chalfen to be this, although 'Dr. Sick' is better example.
  • Eye Scream/Tears of Blood: 'Dr Sick' suffers from haemolacria, just to make him even more creepy (and unforgettable)
  • For Science!: Marcus's position on Future Mouse.
  • Funetik Aksent: In spades.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Millat is part of a group of young radical second-generation British Muslims called K.E.V.I.N.: Keepers of the Eternal and Vigilant Islamic Nation. (They are aware they have an acronym problem.)
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: The source of all the political extrapolations about Future Mouse.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: In late 1980s North London street slang, the word "chief" is a vulgar insult - but, generally, only teenagers are aware of this. When Samad uses the word in its original, respectable sense, Millat finds this so funny that he laughs hysterically, falls down, and breaks his nose.
  • Hollywood Jehovah's Witness: Archie's wife Clara was raised in a very strict Jehovah's Witness family. This becomes important later when her mother, her ex-boyfriend and a group of JW's protest Marcus Chalfen's experiment.
  • Hot for Teacher: Samad, though not a student (and considerably older), has an affair with a teacher after he gives up pining for her.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: After joining a street gang, Millat burns a copy of The Satanic Verses at a book-burning on the evening news. After seeing this on television, his mother decides to teach him a lesson by burning not only his books, but also his records and videotapes.
  • Hypocrite: Many of the Muslim characters, especially the ones who are constantly ranting about how "immoral" the West is.
  • The Indecisive: Archie
  • Innocent Bigot: Almost all the major characters have their moments.
  • Insistent Terminology: "Peace be upon him!" (whenever a Muslim character mentions, or even thinks of, the prophet Muhammad).
  • Karma Houdini
    • Despite being a Nazi collaborator, Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret becomes a respected biologist in his later years (with a Jewish protege for added irony). Very much Truth in Television, actually.
    • Millat gets off with a mere slap on the wrist for trying to assassinate Dr. Perret (although this is largely because so many eyewitnesses mistake him for Magid and vice versa). He also inexplicably survives a sexual encounter with an HIV-positive girl despite not using a condom (this being during a time when getting AIDS was practically an instant death sentence).
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Enough to populate the entire city of London, it seems.
  • Luke, I Might Be Your Father: At the end of the novel, it is impossible to tell which of the identical Iqbal twins is the father of Irie's baby.
  • Malcolm Xerox: KEVIN.
  • May-December Romance: When they are both forty-eight, Archie and Samad marry nineteen year-old Clara Bowden and Alsana Begum. While the trope is played straight for Archie and Clara, Samad's marriage to Alsana was arranged sometime before 1945. When he was only eighteen and a decade before she was born.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: The Raggastani gang lifestyle consists of wearing "hip-hop" clothes, smoking marijuana, using vulgar Bengali terms, and watching kung-fu movies.
  • Noble Bigot: Alsana, who looks down upon anyone who is not Bengali, but still admits that there are things about other ethnicities she does find admirable. She also has a grudgingly friendly relationship with her lesbian niece.
  • The Ophelia: Archie's first wife, Ophelia.
  • Racist Grandpa: Mr. J. P. Hamilton, who isn't really racist but comes off that way because of his casual use of demeaning Victorian-era terms.
    • Clara's actual grandpa is a white man with a confused and ultimately destructive attitude to black women- it seems he loved Ambrosia but his ingrained colonial attitudes meant the relationship could only leave her hurt.
  • Really Gets Around: Millat, Up to Eleven.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: At the end of the Second World War, Samad insists that Archie must prove himself by executing the sick Nazi doctor they have captured.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Millat and Magid, respectively.
  • School Study Media
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Charismatic, Book Dumb Millat and studious, officious Magid.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Irie, who in one scene uses the words "fucking" and "proletariat" in two consecutive sentences. ("That girl," clucks her mother. "Swallowed a dictionary and a gutter at the same time.")
  • Starts with a Suicide: In the first chapter, Archie attempts suicide due to the failure of his first marriage. Another character intervenes, so it's also an Interrupted Suicide.
  • Those Two Guys: Clarence and Denzel, the two chatty, elderly Jamaicans at Archie and Samad's favorite pub.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Millat. Joyce Chalfen certainly thinks so.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: You don't get much more straightforward than this.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Both generations of Iqbal men have this weakness.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Both in- and out-of-universe with the term "Aryan." Smith uses it to denote both the olive-skinned Eurasian peoples who colonized India thousands of years ago and the more contemporary sense of the pink-skinned peoples who populate Europe, Australia, and much of the Americas today. This gets lampshaded when Samad scolds Alsana for acting too "Western" and she responds by pulling out an encyclopedia entry on Bangladesh that confirms that Bengalis are an Indo-Aryan people, and thus Western in the first place.
  • Younger Than They Look: Alsana is no older than her thirties for most of the novel, but she could almost pass for an old woman because of her flabby torso (partly due to having given birth to twins, but also because she works at home and has become quite lazy), her sometimes hysterical protective instinct for her two boys, her puritanical attitude toward sex, her latent dislike of homosexuals in particular and anyone who isn't Bengali in general, and her general Apron Matron tendencies towards everyone.

Tropes Specific To The TV Adaptation:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Several characters in the television version. For example, Joshua Chalfen, who is a pudgy nerd in the novel, is played by Pretty Boy James McAvoy.
    • The novel suggests he grows out of the dorkiness, and possibly slims down too... but having been that kid is still informing who he is...
    • Also Irie; whose weight (thirteen stone), buck teeth, glasses and unmanageable afro are major factors in her poor self-image is played by Sarah Ozeke who has none of these traits other than wearing glasses in some scenes.
    • Alsana is mentioned by both Samad and the Narrator to gain a not inconsiderable amount of weight over the years. In the TV adaptation, she stays relatively slim.
  • Adaptational Badass: In the novel, KEVINís leader Brother Ibrahim is mentioned as being 5í7íí and a deeply unimpressive public speaker thanks to his odd intonations and constant use of Department of Redundancy Department. In the TV adaptation, he is a much more imposing leader played by 6í1íí Chu Omambala
    • KEVIN itself is portrayed as a far more organised and militant organisation than the novel suggested. Additionally; their uniform replaces the green bowties of the novel with black neckties and adds sunglasses, creating a more striking appearance for its members.
    • Dr Sick is a scientific genius who was part of the Nazis eugenics program but is limited by illness and spends most of his time in a secluded house in Bulgaria painting the surrounding landscape. In the TV adaptation he is a concentration camp commandant notorious enough to earn the nickname ďDevil Of DachauĒ.
    • Unlike in the novel, Josh actually acts on his crush on Joely and hatred of Crispin by pushing Crispin and several other FATE members out of the back of the groupís van after they have been pulled over by the police, and proceeding to try and carry out their plan with just himself and Joely.
    • Halal butcher Mohammad Hussein-Ishmael is a recent KEVIN recruit and is looked down upon by Millat as an embarrassment partly because of his love of Elvis and him being considerably overweight. In the TV adaptation; he is far more composed and assertive, and is the one to recruit Millat into the organisation.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the novel, Alsana burns Millatís secular belongings to teach him a lesson after she sees him on the news at a Book Burning of The Satanic Verses. In the TV adaptation, the act is carried out by Samad in a drunken rage with no provocation by Millat.
    • It is implied that one of the reasons Samad chooses to send Magid to Bangladesh rather than Millat is because Magid saw him in a compromising position with Poppy Burt-Jones, and Magid being thousands of miles away means that Alsana wonít find out he has been unfaithful. Whereas in the novel, a letter from Archieís Swedish pen pal indirectly makes the point that Millat may do better in life if he isnít growing up in Magidís shadow.
    • Irie deliberately tries to disrupt the Future-Mouse launch by giving tickets to Hortense, and helping Josh steal some because of bitterness about being overshadowed as Marcusís protégé by Magid. In the novel, taking a cue from one of Marcusís letters to Magid, she decides to accept her lot in life and turns her ambitions to dentistry.
    • Dr Sick is mentioned by Samad to have been part of the Nazisí eugenics program. The Devil Of Dachau is a concentration camp commandant monstrous enough to gain a Red Baron-style nickname.
  • Adaptational Wimp: Alsanaís tendency to settle disputes with Samad through physical violence (and winning by fighting dirty) are cut, as is her steelier and more confrontational side.
  • Adaptation Expansion: A number of events that the novel mentions in passing as having already happened are actually depicted onscreen such as Samad and Archie meeting again for the first time after the war, Samad and Alsana's wedding, and Clara recovering from the motorcycle accident where she loses most of her teeth.
    • Archie and Clara's wedding is given more focus than in the novel; with Samad's best man speech segueing into the World War Two flashbacks, as he tells the story of capturing the Devil Of Dachau in lieu of a traditional speech.
    • Darcus's death is shown onscreen unlike the novel where it is first mentioned five years after the fact.
    • Josh, Hortense, Ryan, Joyce, and Marcus all appear in Part Two while the second section of the novel included them as background characters (Joyce and Marcus), or gave them a token mention at best (Hortense and Ryan).
  • Adaptation Name Change: The Chalfens become the Malfens (and, correspondingly, their original Polish name changes from Chalfenovsky to Malfenovsky), Dr Sick becomes the Devil Of Dachau, and Samadís ancestor Mangal Pande becomes Bahadur Khan.
  • Adapted Out: Thanks to the novel having Loads and Loads of Characters, a huge number are cut from the TV adaptation including everyone connected to OíConnellís, Joshís three younger brothers, and everybody from Archie and Samadís World War Two flashback other than Dr Sick/the Devil Of Dachau.
  • Artifact Title: Teeth are a recurring theme in the novel (being shown as a common feature between people regardless of race and culture) but receive far less focus in the TV adaptation.
  • Composite Character: Sir Edmund Flecker-Glenard becomes a combination of himself (a turn-of-the-century industrialist stationed in Jamaica) and Captain Charlie Durham (Irieís maternal great-grandfather).
    • Millatís old school friend Hifan is Adapted Out and his role of recruiting Millat into KEVIN is given to Mo.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: After Darcusís death scene, the camera pans over to the television where an episode of Bagpuss is finishing. ďAnd Bagpuss gave a big yawn and settled down to sleep.
  • Compressed Adaptation: A necessity thanks to the source material being a Doorstopper with plenty of philosophising and exposition by an omniscient narrator.
  • Dawson Casting: Millat and Magid (both fifteen years old in Part Three and seventeen in Part Four) are played by twenty-six year old Christopher Simpson.
    • Josh (who is the same age as Magid and Millat) is played by twenty-three year old James McAvoy
    • Clara and Alsana (both nineteen years old in Part One) are played by Naomie Harris and Archie Panjabi who were twenty-five and twenty-nine years old during filming. Though this becomes inverted as Time Skips mean that, by Part Three, their characters are both thirty-four.
  • Death by Adaptation: Dr Sick's ultimate fate is never mentioned in the novel but in the TV adaptation, Samad mentions that he had a heart attack and is a goner.
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: The restaurant scene in Part Two becomes this as Samad attempts to maintain his lie that he owns the restaurant to impress Joyce and Marcus Malfen; while actually attempting to fulfil his duties as a waiter, deal with a scorned Poppy Burt-Jones, and carry out his plan to secretly send Magid to Bangladesh.
  • Lighter and Softer: As well as including more obvious comedy (see "Fawlty Towers" Plot), the TV adaptation excises some of the novelís darker moments such as Samadís brief domestic abuse of Alsana after Indira Gandhi is assassinated, and Edmund Flecker-Glenard attempting to rape Ambrosia Bowden, who is nine months pregnant and (at most) fifteen years old at the time.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: A variant happens after (while still in an ambulance and en-route to a hospital) Archie learns that he survived being shot thanks to a coin acting as a Pocket Protector. His response (as he has a habit of flipping coins to make decisions) is to ask which side the bullet hit.
  • Missed Him by That Much: Used to smoothly transition between different character threads. Most prominent in Part One before all of the main characters become fully connected to each other.
  • Nothing But Hits
  • Playing Gertrude: Because of a combination of Dawson Casting and Time Skips, by Part Three Archie Panjabi is playing the mother of a character whose actor is only three years her junior.
  • Pocket Protector: Archie survives Taking the Bullet for the Devil Of Dachau thanks to a coin in his pocket acting as this.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Much of the philosophising and world-building (such as the history of O'Connell's and exposition about characters' experiences outside of the main story) by the narrator are cut without being recycled in some way.
    • Samad's right hand isn't paralysed, presumably because of the difficulty of realising it onscreen.
    • We don't see any of events between 1985 and 1990 that centre on Millat and Irie, likely because of the difficulty of consistently portraying them over the course of their early teenage years.
  • Recycled Premise: A number of moments that arenít adapted in their original form are used in other ways such as the burning of Millatís secular possessions (see Adaptational Villainy).
  • Skewed Priorities: See Major Injury Underreaction.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the novel we are only given a hypothetical endgame for Archie, and where the bullet hit him is never mentioned. In the TV adaptation, he definitively survives thanks to a coin acting as a Pocket Protector.
  • Time Skip: More prominent than in the novels by cutting the briefly shown events of Millat, Magid, and Irieís early teenage years and jumping from 1985 straight to 1990 when they are fifteen years old and their story begins in earnest.
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