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White Teeth

Scheduled broadcast: Sundays, May 11 + 18, 2003
(Confirm with your local station)

White Teeth is a comic-by-turns story of two families, three cultures and the changing face of modern Britain.

In the author's words, the novel is "an attempt at a comic family epic of little England into which an explosion of ethnic colour is injected". It tells the story of three families, one Indian, one white, one mixed, in North London and Oxford from World War II to now.


Discussion Questions

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith (2000)

  1. A few days before Archie tries to kill himself Samad tries to console him: "You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it ... there are second chances; oh yes, there are second chances in life." Does Archie's marriage to Clara constitute a second chance that improves greatly upon the life he had before he met her? Why does the first chapter title call the marriage "peculiar"?

  2. Why does Archie like to flip a coin in moments of indecision? What does it say about him as a person? Does chance play a more powerful role than will or desire in determining events for other characters in the novel, too? What would Samad say about determination in life?

  3. The book describes Archie as, "a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios: Pebble: Beach. Raindrop: Ocean. Needle: Haystack." Does the film convey this sense? How? Does the fact that Archie is so humble, so lacking in ambition or egotism, make him a more comical character than the serious and frustrated Samad? Is Samad's character ultimately funny, as well?

  4. Samad does not define himself as a waiter. In the book he imagines a sign he would like to wear at his restaurant job that proclaims, "I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier . . ." In the film we also see him struggling with this. Why, in all the years that pass in the story, does Samad not pursue another job? Is it surprising that Samad doesn't seek to change his life in more active ways? Does Islam play a part in this issue?

  5. Magid and Millat both shirk their Asian roots, though in different ways. How do we see them doing this? Irie, on the other hand, is drawn to what she imagines the Chalfens to be. What does she see in them? Is the gradual loss -- or active rejection -- of one's family heritage an unavoidable consequence of life in a culturally mixed environment?

  6. What is the effect of juxtaposing Alsana with Neena, her "lesbian Niece-of-Shame"? Why does Alsana ask Neena to act as an intermediary with the Chalfens for Clara and herself?

  7. Fed up with her own family, Irie goes to stay with her grandmother and begins to piece together the details of her ancestry. Does what she learns about her family's history make a difference in her sense of identity or in her ideas about the direction her life should take?

  8. What effect does the introduction of the educated, middle-class Chalfen family have on the novel? Why is it significant that Marcus Chalfen comes from a Jewish background? Why are the Chalfens so patronizing toward the Iqbals and the Joneses? Considering Joyce's relationship to Irie and Millat, what is wrong with the liberal sentiments that the Chalfens represent?

  9. Various characters, from various families in the novel, collide in the climactic scenes leading up to the FutureMouse convention. What are the motivations and beliefs that have put these characters in conflict? Do the issues of religion, science and animal rights relate to the novel's interest in personal fate and family history?

  10. With White Teeth, Zadie Smith shows herself to be a brilliant mimic of the sounds of urban speech. In which parts of the novel does she display this skill to the greatest effect? How does her prose style work to convey the busy, noisy soundscape of a multicultural metropolis? Does the film try to accomplish this effect? How? Does it succeed?

Questions provided courtesy of Vintage Books.

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