Abstract: False Teeth
In her novel White Teeth, Zadie Smith conjures up the image of false teeth floating in a glass on three separate occasions (77, 174, 322). In these three occasions, the image never plays directly into the plot, as there are no false teeth in the immediate scene. For example, when Samad is driving to the airport so that he can send Magid to Bangladesh, the following sentiment interrupts the sequence of events: ?Years from now, even hours after the plane leaves, this will be history that Samad tries not to remember. That his memory makes no effort to retain?False teeth floating silently to the bottom of a glass? (174). There are no false teeth in the car, and yet the image hangs there in the story, floating much like the false teeth themselves. The frequency with which this image appears forces readers to examine it more closely. This paper argues that the two most important words of this sentiment-false teeth-underlies one of the central themes of this novel, that a person?s identity is not as concrete as they would like to believe.
First, consider the word ?false.? In the Oxford dictionary, it is defined as ?Not according with truth or fact; incorrect,? and ?Made to imitate something in order to deceive? (?False?). In short, to be false is to be artificial and insincere. Interestingly, the dictionary offers up this example sentence: ?A horribly false smile.? A smile is a thing designed to send a message, an outward indication of an inner state, and yet it can easily be faked. A smile may have no bearing on the emotion of the person smiling.
This word ?false,? then, seems to be at odds with the second word of the phrase, ?teeth.? Teeth are supposed to be structured and stable, always capable of performing the various functions it needs to perform. After all, teeth are composed of some of the strongest substances of the body, and if properly cared for, teeth change little over time after they are grown in. It comes as no surprise that people, who are so averse to change, should use teeth as a metaphor for expressing their inner mentalities. Smiles-or the flashing of one?s teeth-represent a near-universal signal of happiness, but people are also said to ?clench their teeth? when they are upset or that their ?teeth are set on edge? when they are uncomfortable or disturbed. Teeth also come to represent people in White Teeth as well. Hamilton used white teeth to identify Africans when he invaded the Congo (144), the yellowing of teeth is a signal that a person smokes cigarettes (243), and chapters labeled as ?root canals? examine the histories of individual characters.
The tension between the two words ?false? and ?teeth,? then, is entirely intentional. The structure of teeth and of people?s identities is in question throughout the entire story. Clara learns of the fragility of teeth when hers are knocked out after she turns her back on the Jehovah?s Witnesses (37). She later replaces them with a set of dentures. Similarly, Samad, who uses the story of his great-grandfather Mangal Pande as a type of anchor for his own set of beliefs, clings onto the idea that Mangal was a war hero, despite all evidence to the contrary (209). Hortense never surrenders her religion, despite the failure of two of its prophesies. Joyce believes that her children are the best in the world, even as one of them hurls insults at their guests (271). The foundations upon which these characters build themselves up are as structurally sound as a rumor, as the image of the false teeth floating in a glass so eloquently illustrates.
?False.? The Online Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2016.
En.oxforddictionaries.com, do my class essays://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/false. Accessed 3
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth, Vintage Books, 2001.