White Teeth, written by Zadie Smith, is a dance between the past and the present. Through vivid memories and flashbacks, Smith is able to paint a clear picture of the future. The author is only so successful in capturing the present because she utilizes the past to further explain characters and situations. Past memories are so closely intertwined with the present that it can be difficult to determine at times. However, this complex system of memories and reality follow along a familiar theme throughout the text. The future relies on the past and there is no way to entirely separate the two.
Samad is a crucial character in the text that struggles with his own past and present. It is when Samad begins to question everything that he has known when he starts projecting that anxiety onto his sons. Samad meets his children's music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones, and has an affair with her. The guilt that follows this infidelity seems to consume Samad from that point on and he becomes focused on making up for his sin. When Magid and Millat witness this traitorous act, Samad feels that it is his responsibility to make sure that his sons come better men than he was; his past has already begun to affect his present. This is why Samad changes so dramatically, sends his son Magid away, and resents the familiar behavior of his other son, Mallit. Smith included this conversion of Samad in the text to emphasize the quote that she opens the novel with. The past cannot be forgotten, is inescapable, and will come back around to influence the future, as it does for Samad and his sons.
The changes that Samad undergoes only emphasize his struggle to escape his past actions and mistakes. The guilt of his infidelity calls into questions some previous choices that he has struggled with. As mistakes and uncertainty seem to be piling up Samad latches onto the religious part of his life that now seems to be changing as well. Realizing the extent of his own mistake, Samad turns to religion as a way to for him and his sons to escape his mistakes; "by Allah, how thankful he is that Magid, Magid at least, will... be flying east from this place and its demands, its constant cravings... this place where people want what they want now, right now" (Smith 172). This reasoning is directly tied to Samad's original desire for Poppy; "just like that. Desire didn't even bother casing the joint, checking in whether the neighbors were in- desire just kicked down the door and made himself at home" (Smith 112). Samad recognizes the power of desire. He understands that it is difficult to have power over desire and he desperately wants for his sons to act differently and become better people.
Another example of Samad's transformation comes with his overall attitude. There are times when he would have acted differently but because of his guilt he cannot remain the same person, "any other day Samad would have given her as good as he got. But today he was feeling guilty and vulnerable... he could not face Mad Mary and her vicious truth-telling" (Smith 147). Decisions that Samad made in the past continue to affect the person he is in the present, this is clear when he neglects his wife and sends their son away without either of their consent. The guilt that Samad feels literally drives him to outrageous acts.
Ironically, Samad only realizes the power of the past when it begins to affect his present and future. Therefore, the harder Samad pushes his sons the more obvious it becomes that his sons cannot learn the same lesson without making their own mistakes. Millat, for example, takes part in his own rebellions that go against Samad. Burning books and causing a commotion is the kind of behavior that Samad took part in while he was in the war. The poker game and business that resulted in Dr. Perret's escape caused regret for Samad (Smith 219). Therefore, he realizes that Millatt may regret his behavior and attempts to stop him.
Samad's relationship with his past mistakes and its role in his present has layers of complexity. Samad seems to be aware of his mistakes, which is why he tries to prevent the same for his sons. Yet, Samad continues to make similar mistakes as time passes. The decision to send Magid away was clearly not thought out or discussed, which proves to be another choice that will greatly affect his future. Alsana's relationship with Samad and Millat changes. In addition, Samad's choice alters the relationship between Magid and Millat indefinitely. The actions of Samad's past forces him to transform, yet, ironically, he does not diverge away from some old habits.
Smith's, interestingly, sets the theme and tone for her novel by beginning with a powerful quote about the past and present. The inscription that is one the Washington, D.C. museum appears at the start of White Teeth, "what is past is prologue" (Smith ii). Otherwise, the past is the beginning of every story. Also, the present and the future can not make sense without knowledge of the past. In addition, another quote that Smith chose highlights the role of the past; "There's never any knowing... which of our actions, which of our idleness won't have things hanging on it forever" (1). White Teeth ultimately reinforces the themes that appear in the carefully selected quotes.
The emphasis that Smith places on the past is clear throughout the rest of the text as she plays with memory and flashback scenes. Samad's character is also a testament to the power of the past. Guilt over his previous choices is enough to inspire a sort of transformation. This guilt certainly affects the relationship between Samad and his sons and proves that the past is influential and uncertain.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. S.l.: Random House. New York, New York, 2000. Print.