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Essay About History and Legacy in White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's exquisite novel "White Teeth" explores history and legacy through the lives of diverse characters, creating a vivid tapestry of interconnectivity and intergenerational struggles. Through her storytelling prowess, Smith takes readers on an engaging journey that explores identity, heritage, and its effects on present-day living. By drawing upon Norman Mailer's writing style as inspiration for my analysis, this essay seeks to get at the core of "White Teeth" to uncover its intricate web of history and legacy that pervades each character's lives.

The Ancestral Threads: A Historical Exploration

Smith's portrayal of history in "White Teeth" is multi-layered and transcends conventional boundaries. The novel begins with the story of Archie Jones, a disillusioned war veteran haunted by his past and seeking a purpose in the present. Archie's desire to trace back his ancestry serves as a potent symbol of how the past shapes the present. As part of the narrative, readers are taken on an historic voyage through time where colonialism, immigration and cultural clashes interact to shape modern history.

The Clash of Cultures: Old World vs. New World

A prominent aspect of the novel is the clash between the old world and the new world. This is exemplified through the contrasting lives of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, both wartime friends hailing from different cultural backgrounds. While Archie embraces the British way of life and struggles to escape the shadows of history, Samad clings to his Bangladeshi heritage, grappling with the complexities of assimilation and cultural preservation. The interplay between these characters reflects the broader theme of cultural identity, exploring how historical ties can both divide and unite individuals.

Genetic Determinism: Tracing Hereditary Influences

In "White Teeth," Smith subtly explores the notion of genetic determinism—the idea that our actions and choices are preordained by our genetic makeup and ancestral history. This is most evident in the lives of the second-generation characters, such as Magid and Millat Iqbal, and their struggle to reconcile their familial expectations with their individual aspirations. As the story unfolds, we witness how the legacies of their parents impact their decisions, highlighting the complex interplay between nature and nurture.

The Pervasiveness of History: Postcolonial London

The novel's setting in postcolonial London serves as a microcosm of history's omnipresence. Smith masterfully depicts the diverse cultural landscape of the city, populated by immigrants and their descendants from former colonies. Through characters like Clara Bowden, whose Jamaican heritage is entangled with her modern London life, the author accentuates how the past lingers in the present, shaping experiences and relationships. London becomes a melting pot of histories, giving birth to a new generation grappling with the weight of their ancestors' stories.

The Legacy of War: Impact on Generations

World War II looms large in "White Teeth," with many characters directly or indirectly affected by its aftermath. Archie Jones' war experiences define his outlook on life, while Samad Iqbal's decision to fight in the war has lasting repercussions on his family's future. The war's legacy trickles down to the next generation, influencing the paths taken by Millat and Magid. Through these characters, Smith explores how historical events reverberate across generations, shaping their beliefs, values, and destinies.

Escaping the Shackles: Breaking Free from History's Grasp

Despite the pervasive influence of history, "White Teeth" also explores the possibility of breaking free from its grasp. Characters like Irie Jones and Alsana Iqbal represent the struggle to overcome the burdens of their past and redefine their identities. Irie's journey of self-discovery, navigating her Jamaican and British roots, reflects a sense of agency that challenges the deterministic view of history's influence. Similarly, Alsana's determination to protect her daughters from the restrictive traditions of their cultural heritage showcases the transformative power of individual choices.


In "White Teeth," Zadie Smith paints a powerful portrait of history and legacy, a tapestry where the past intertwines with the present, influencing the lives of diverse characters. Through her skillful narrative, she unravels the complexities of cultural identity, the impact of historical events, and the intergenerational struggles that shape the destiny of individuals. Norman Mailer's influence on the storytelling style enriches the novel, infusing it with a captivating blend of historical exploration and character-driven drama.

As readers, we are left with a profound realization that history is not just a series of disconnected events but an ever-evolving force, weaving its threads into the fabric of time. "White Teeth" invites us to reflect on our own place in this intricate tapestry and ponder how our histories and legacies continue to mold the world we inhabit today.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) For Essay:

What is the central theme of "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith?

The central theme of "White Teeth" revolves around history and legacy. Zadie Smith masterfully weaves a narrative that explores how historical events, cultural heritage, and generational struggles shape the lives of diverse characters. The novel delves into the interplay between the past and the present, highlighting how individuals are influenced by their ancestors' stories and how history continues to reverberate through time, impacting their identities, choices, and relationships.

How does Zadie Smith explore the clash of cultures in "White Teeth"?

In "White Teeth," Zadie Smith vividly portrays the clash of cultures, especially through the lives of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, war veterans from different cultural backgrounds. While Archie embraces the British way of life and seeks to move past his historical burdens, Samad clings to his Bangladeshi heritage, grappling with the complexities of assimilation and cultural preservation. The novel delves into the tensions and complexities arising from the collision of old-world traditions and new-world experiences, demonstrating how cultural identities both divide and unite individuals.

How does "White Teeth" explore the impact of history on future generations?

"White Teeth" delves into the impact of history on future generations through the experiences of characters like Magid and Millat Iqbal, the second-generation children of Samad and Alsana Iqbal. Their lives are deeply influenced by their parents' pasts and the historical events, such as World War II, that shaped their family histories. The novel illustrates how legacies are inherited, leading to conflicts between ancestral expectations and individual aspirations. Additionally, it showcases the possibility of breaking free from historical determinism through characters like Irie Jones, who navigates her own path of self-discovery, challenging the notion that one's destiny is solely determined by the past.